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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Entertaining Pairing of Mystery and History : EDSEL: A Novel of Detroit by Loren D. Estleman , Mysterious Press, $21.95, 304 pages

March 08, 1995|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"America is a mistake," Sigmund Freud once said, "a giant mistake."

So was the automobile known as the Edsel, a symbol of the overblown ambitions of America in the '50s, and both Freud's pronouncement and the Edsel are invoked by Loren D. Estleman in the fourth of his Detroit-based mystery novels, "Edsel."

Estleman is not trafficking in cheap nostalgia. Indeed, the Zeitgeist of the '50s that he conjures up so expertly includes Joe McCarthy as well as Clarabell the Clown, fall-out shelters as well as "Fantasia," all of it rendered in the sharp, sarcastic banter of a burnt-out newspaper columnist who has been reduced to hawking automobiles as a flack for Ford Motor Co.

"Cars, like everything else in a nation that once prided itself upon vertical growth, had begun to flatten and lengthen," muses Connie Minor, who is himself suffering from a kind of unplanned obsolescence, and appears to be proud of it. "Having devoured the rest of the world with its military and industrial might, the whole country was stretching itself out like a lion in the sun."

What rouses Connie from his own middle-aged stupor, we quickly learn, is an assignment to prepare America for the coming of the Edsel, an automobile that is intended to represent "the end product of 10,000 years of evolution, conception, invention, revolution, and celebration."

Soon enough, though, Connie begins to feel heat on all sides--the testosterone-charged office politics of Ford, the overheated fantasies of a red-baiting politician who's looking for communist influence in professional wrestling, a complicated scam that looks like industrial espionage and smells like blackmail, even an encounter with real-life union boss Walter Reuther, "a nervous man with his finger on a big trigger."

"I wanted to show him my expired press union card," says Connie of Reuther's bodyguard, "but I was afraid he'd eat it."

The interlocking conspiracies in "Edsel" are so dense that Connie can't quite figure out who is tailing him around the mean streets of Detroit, or why. Everybody from the Ford hierarchy to the Red Squad, the FBI and the Mob, it seems, has a reason to keep an eye on him, even as he is trying to keep his eye on them.

As it turns out, Connie seems to spend most of his time in pursuit of phantoms, ricocheting around town from the River Rouge assembly line to Tiger Stadium, from City Hall to the drive-in movies. Still, he finds time to dally with a couple of intriguing women, a beguiling young beauty whose withered arm does not dampen his ardor, and an older married woman named Agnes who seems to exert an even more powerful influence on Connie.

"Going to church in the morning?" she asks him, and it takes him a moment or two to figure out that it's her way of inviting him to spend the night.

Indeed, wordplay is far more crucial than gunplay to "Edsel," and Estleman's lively variations on the conventions of hard-boiled mystery fiction are a kind of parody. A filet mignon is "as tender as a man's grip on life." The architecture of a tract house is "as dull as an Eisenhower speech," and the hood of a 1946 Studebaker "tapers to a point like the nacelle of a P-38." Showing up too early for a crucial job interview "is like wearing a necktie that lights up and says 'I'm Desperate.' "

Even as he plays tricks with our expectations of what we will find in a hard-boiled mystery, Estleman keeps us wondering about exactly who did what to whom. "You spend too much time figuring the angles," says Agnes to Connie after their first night of passion, and the same might be said of the book itself.

"Edsel" is less a detective story than a smart take on the '50s as an era when our national ambition soared and then stalled, crashed and burned. It's full of fear-ridden and failure-plagued men and women, and the Edsel becomes a glittering but flawed icon in which we can read all the meanings of failure in American life.

"The first failure," as Estleman writes, "is always entertaining."

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