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DARKTOWN
by Thomas Mullen
Atria, September 2016
384 pages
$26.00
ISBN: 1501133862


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1948, the mayor of Atlanta decide to hire eight "Negro" police officers to patrol the black neighborhoods. They were expected to maintain order and were authorized to wear a sidearm and give out tickets, but couldn't make arrests or investigate crimes. Thomas Mullen uses this historical moment to remind us of our past in an effective and engrossing police procedural.

Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith have accepted the challenge of policing their own people within the confines of the Jim Crow south. Boggs, the son of a prominent preacher, raised in an intellectual and refined household, feels the burden of representing his race; Smith, who served in a tank battalion during World War II, feels a different burden: the restrictions he had left behind that now seem suffocating. When they stop a white man who has knocked down a lamppost with his car, they are troubled to see a black woman beside him with a bruised face, but they can't stop the man from driving off without so much as a ticket. When the woman later turns up dead in a pile of trash, they know her murder won't be investigated not unless they do it. They face steep odds. Not only are they unauthorized to investigate crimes, they are despised by the white police force, and asking questions even of their own neighbors could get them fired or worse. Taking those questions into white Atlanta or into the surrounding countryside could get them killed.

Two white officers who frequently drive their squad car into Darktown, as the black neighborhood is known, provide another angle on the difficulty Boggs and Smith face. Denny Rakestraw, like Smith, is adjusting to life after the war, and he's not happy to be paired with Lionel Dunlow, who knows his way around the city but is a loutish, violent, and corrupt officer who hates seeing black men in uniform. Rakestraw finds Dunlow's brutality disgusting, but his innate decency is inhibited by racist attitudes that make it hard to see Boggs and Smith as equals.

Though some reviews have compared Mullen's novel to the work of Dennis Lehane or James Ellroy, Mullen's narrative style is quite different, somewhat old-fashioned in its flavor, evocative but not lushly descriptive. Rather, Mullen lets the times speak for themselves in the words people used in 1948 (and still use, despite claims that "political correctness" has constrained freedom of speech). It's unsettling to spend time experiencing oppression with Boggs and Smith, even more unsettling at times to see the sympathetic Rakestraw give voice to ingrained racism, but it makes the book unforgettable. At times, the day-to-day experience of blacks and whites living in the Jim Crow south seen through this fictional lens seems like bulletins from a distant past, something long gone and half-forgotten, shocking in its strangeness. At other times it reads like tomorrow's headlines.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, October 2016

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