Picks and Pans Review: Motown

updated 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/23/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Loren D. Estleman

Hot town; summer in the city." It's 1966. Americans are watching The Beverly Hillbillies and listening to Barry Sadler sing "The Ballad of the Green Berets."

This is the world of Motown, the second installment of a trilogy about Detroit by Estleman, best known as the author of the wry Amos Walker detective novels (also set in the Motor City). Casting a wider net in this ambitious book, Estleman has set out to paint a city on the eve of destruction.

Motown follows two distinct narrative paths. One involves Rick Amery, an ex-cop and car buff who is hired by a large auto company to dig up dirt on a Ralph Nader—like lobbyist. The second story line takes place on the other side of town, where a black street operator named Quincy Springfield finds that his numbers operation is being threatened by a local mob chieftain. The mob types are easy to pick out; they're the ones with names like Sweets, Patsy and Joey Machine.

As always, Estleman's prose is crisp and evocative, sprinkled with lines straight out of the hard-boiled school primer: "His mouth was where smiles went to die." The characters are intriguing and well drawn, yet Motown remains curiously uninvolving, largely because the narrative threads are never woven together. The book also would have benefited from an occasional dollop of the laid-back humor of the Walker series.

While Estleman may aspire to compete with Elmore Leonard for the title of the Dickens of Detroit, Motown's split personality makes it feel more like a disjointed tale of two cities. (Bantam, $19)

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