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Author’s protagonist takes on white supremacy in timely mystery

By Kurt Anthony Krug  |  Special to The Detroit News

            Donald Levin was in the middle of writing his third novella in his “Dry Earth” series that’s set in a post-apocalyptic world, but it hit a little too close to home and he set it aside to write his latest Martin Preuss novel.

Levin, 70, of Ferndale, worked on a novella for an anthology imagining the end of humanity called “Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity's End,” written with Wendy Thomson and Andrew Lark, which came out last November. When Levin finished his contribution, “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth,” he felt it had possibilities for becoming a series, so he wrote a sequel called “The Exile.”  

“I started a third novella, intending to put them all together… but writing post-apocalyptic fiction at the same time as the real world seemed like it was skidding uncontrollably into that very future was too daunting, so I stopped and began writing the Preuss novel. At least those books come to satisfying closures where order triumphs – if only temporarily,” he said.  

A native of Boston, Levin moved to Detroit when he was 4½ years old. An alumnus of Mumford High School in Detroit, Levin earned his undergraduate degree in English from Oakland University in Rochester, his graduate degree in English from what is now the University of Detroit Mercy, and his doctorate in English education from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Levin was a speechwriter for the New York City Department of Health during the Ed Koch administration. From 1996 to 2015, Levin was an English professor at the now-defunct Marygrove College in Detroit.

“In the House of Night” (Poison Toe Press $18.95), the seventh installment in the Martin Preuss series, debuts Oct. 6 and is Levin’s longest book in the series at 412 pages.

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017 – which was a white supremacist rally where  James Fields Jr. intentionally drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing one and injuring 19 others – served as the impetus of this book.

“Following the events of and after Charlottesville, I saw with concern and – frankly – horror how the white supremacy movement was growing in visibility and validation in this country,” said Levin. “The violence, racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny of the far right – and its spread and acceptance by more factions of the culture – profoundly disturbed me. The book emerged from this concern. Set in 2013, the book looks at a moment in time a few years ago when the white nationalist movement began to edge itself into the mainstream of American culture.”

The plot follows Preuss – a former detective of the Ferndale Police Department. and now a private investigator – who’s hired by a priest and a rabbi to look into the murder of Charles Bright, a retired history professor who taught at Wayne State University. However, Preuss has to toe the line with the Ferndale PD since it’s an active investigation and especially since Chief Nick Russo has it in for Preuss. His investigation leads him all over Metro Detroit from a peace fellowship center, a Buddhist temple, and a sprawling homeless encampment into a treacherous world of family secrets that clash with the gathering storm of white supremacist terrorism.

“When I was developing the book, I found a newspaper story from another city about the murder of a professor, which resonated with me as a former professor myself,” said Levin. “As I do with all my plots, I began to adapt and reimagine this true story for my own ends. I changed the professor’s name and field, for example, and gave him an entirely imagined history, including an elaborate backstory as a scholar, a Buddhist, and a champion of social justice.”

Lark, Levin’s “Postcards” co-author, praised the Preuss series, calling “In the House of Night” among Levin’s best.

“Read this series and you’ll agree when I say that Donald Levin should be a name familiar to all lovers of mysteries,” said Lark, of Detroit.

Preuss debuted in 2012’s “Crimes of Love.” Levin spoke about why the Preuss novels are set in the Metro Detroit area.

“There’s a great tradition of Detroit crime fiction with Elmore Leonard and Loren Estleman, so I wanted to have someone who’s not a big city cop, but whose cases and job take him into Detroit and the surrounding metropolitan area,” he explained. “Having it in Ferndale gave me the advantage to write about an area I was very familiar with and (Ferndale) has a police department that’s pretty dedicated to its community… The law enforcement people that I know are people: They have families, they have children, they have mortgages, they’re dedicated to their communities, so I knew I wanted to have that layer of realism in the book.”

Preuss has changed and grown over the course of the series, so it doesn’t get stale and repetitive, the author says. In “Crimes of Love,” Preuss was a detective, then senior detective. At the end of “Guilt in Hiding,” the third book, Preuss retired from the Ferndale PD. In the fourth book, “The Forgotten Child,” he was at loose ends until a friend asked him to look into the disappearance of a young man from 1975. Preuss has been a PI ever since.

“Each book uses its crimes as a starting point for examining larger crimes and more significant social issues, and those affect Preuss as well,” Levin says.

Preuss is a widower whose wife was killed in an automobile accident. He has a son named Toby, who is 20 and multiply handicapped. In the latest novel, Toby lives in a group home yet is still integral to Preuss’ life.

“Indeed, the relationship between Toby and his father is, in my opinion, at the heart of the series. Martin Preuss loves his son fiercely and cares for him with great tenderness, and Toby returns the love unconditionally,” said Levin.

Toby is based on Levin’s late grandson, Jamie, who was born with profound multiple disabilities. How Toby looks, how he acts, how he talks – Toby’s entire situation mirrors Jamie’s, according to Levin.

“Toby is everyone’s favorite character!” said Levin. “In this book, Toby performs his usual function of keeping his father grounded and teaching Preuss about what really matters in life. Toby has profound physical and cognitive disabilities, but the character is sweet, loving, eternally innocent, and joyfully present. He’s one of the few rounded, sympathetic portraits of handicapped characters I’ve seen in fiction. Toby is based on my own grandson Jamie, who sadly passed away a few years ago; writing him as a continuing character in this series gives me a chance to keep that wonderful young man alive for me and everyone who knew him.”


"In the House of Night"

Donald Levin

Poison Toe Press, $18.95