Detroit’s Book & Author Luncheon features Susan Isaacs, Bridgett Davis
It’s been a while since best-selling novelist Susan Isaacs was a featured author at Detroit’s Book & Author Luncheon — 1980, to be exact. She recalls it vividly, because sitting next to her on the dais was Detroit ad man Elmore Leonard, whose writing career was starting to take off.
Isaacs was there to talk about her “racy” thriller "Close Relations," and Leonard was promoting "City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit," a crime novel that came out of reporting he did for The Detroit News Sunday Magazine, when he rode along with Detroit homicide detectives and a News reporter.
“The other featured author wrote anthropomorphic novels about animals living along the Mississippi,” Isaacs recalled, speaking from a car speeding from New York to Philadelphia. So, who sold the most books?
“The animal author got the longest line,” Isaacs reported with a sigh.
OK sure, but does anyone remember Ben Lucien Burman and his rustic Catfish Bend series? Leonard and Isaacs, on the other hand, racked up years of hit novels and are icons in their genres.
Isaacs hit the bestseller list out of the gate in 1979 with "Compromising Positions," which was adapted into a 1985 film starring Susan Sarandon. She’s carved out a niche for herself writing worldly, humorous novels exposing the preoccupations and pretensions of suburbia from a female perspective, always with a mystery at the core.
With her new novel, "Takes One to Know One," just out, Isaacs is among the authors who will be at Burton Manor Monday for the fall Book & Author Luncheon. Also on hand to speak and sign books will be New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik, author of "Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America"; Bridgett M. Davis, author of the memoir "The World According to Fannie Davis, My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers"; and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Deborah Blum, whose book, "Poison Squad," traces the history of food safety in the U.S.
In Isaacs’ "Takes One to Know One," Corie Geller’s fluency in Arabic languages led to a fulfilling career as an FBI agent, but Corie has mostly retired to Long Island with a husband and stepdaughter. Still, she still has her hand in as a part-timer for the bureau, and finds herself easily lured back into the excitement of the chase when an acquaintance’s odd behavior piques her interest.
Corie’s family and female friends are vividly drawn, and the social commentary has bite. Isaacs throws shade on the decorating and landscaping taste of many, and HGTV buffs will enjoy Corie’s friend Wynne, a “lifestyle coach” who skewers pretension wherever she sees it.
“I don’t go into people’s homes and look at the legs on their couch,” Isaacs insisted. “But the odd thing will catch my eye.”
It took the author several years to get Corie and other characters where she enjoyed writing about them, because she intends to be with her for a while — this book is the first in a series.
“I’ve always had that feeling that I am the reader,” Isaacs said of her books. “So if I didn’t like it, the reader wasn’t going to, and what’s the point?”
While Corie has been FBI-trained in the martial arts and there is some action in the book, this isn’t a beat ‘em up, shoot ‘em up, hard-boiled female cop.
“Ah, the dames,” Isaacs said, “the tough ones. And I love them, but they probably wouldn’t live in the suburbs, and what I wanted was her yearning for ordinariness, and the fact that you can’t have that anymore. The other thing I wanted to look at, and this was before the Me Too movement started: What does it take for women to speak up? Because I’ve met so many women who talk about protesting, but when they do, it’s,” (she speaks gently), “Oh, please don’t do that,” instead of in a full voice.”
Detroit by the numbers
Bridgett Davis knew that her mother Fannie’s life in Detroit running a numbers operation while raising her in a beautifully kept home and never missing a PTA meeting was something she had to write about. But there were aspects of her mother’s life that had been kept from her. It was the family edict: Be proud and be private.
In order to flesh out the bravest, toughest part of her mother for "The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers," Davis interviewed relatives and researched the history of the numbers trade. So the reader is treated to fascinating historical detail of how the black numbers trade grew alongside the Mafia’s operations, in between anecdotes of shopping with her mother at Saks and watching her count money, and take care of orphans and widows in the community.
“If you are reading the book, I’m one step ahead of you in the discovery, that’s how I’ve written the book,” Davis said by phone from her New York home. “Listen to what I’ve just learned. Hey, did you know this? Isn’t this amazing? My aunt was fantastic about helping me to understand the details of the numbers business. I was a child growing up around it, but I didn’t realize the specifics of how you did it.”
Davis took time out to speak from her home in New York, where she is at work on a screenplay adaptation of her book, optioned for Hollywood.
Like so many black families, Fannie Davis and her husband, John, had moved north for a better life in the ‘50s, but they struggled in Detroit. It was only after she started taking penny bets from everyday Detroiters playing three-digit combinations for small amounts, that things started to stabilize. She worked for larger numbers kingpins such as Ed Wingate, owner of Golden World Records, but soon ran her own operation.
Even when she had enough money to buy a stately home on Broadstreet Avenue in serene Russell Woods, Fannie had to have a black male friend with a full-time job sign the contract for her, or the white seller wouldn’t do it. And it wasn’t an outright sale, Bridgett Davis discovered, but a contract with few benefits to her mother and all to the seller.
Still, Fannie provided well for her family. She insisted upon driving nice cars and dressing herself and her children in the best.
“It was a generous lifestyle, a wonderful way to teach us our value in society, even in a city that was suggesting otherwise,” Davis said. “It was indulgent for the sake of being so, because my mother thought, ‘Why not spoil your children?’ It was a political act. Every purchase my mother made was a political act.”
Book & Author Society Fall Luncheon
Burton Manor, 27777 Schoolcraft, Livonia (at I-96 and Inkster)
11 a.m. Monday: Book sales. 12 noon: Luncheon begins. 1 p.m. Authors speak. Authors are available to sign books after the luncheon. Tickets are $40 and are available until Friday Oct. 18, online at www.bookandauthor.org and by phone at (586) 685-5750.
Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News, and author of three books. Contact her at susanwhitall.com