April 21, 2017
a review of Thomas Mullen's "Darktown"
Following the war, Atlanta has hired its first black police officers to serve the community known as Darktown. The eight new officers aren’t exactly held in high regard by their bosses either, as not only are they relegated to one neighborhood, but are given no firearms, can make no arrests, and cannot even enter the police department itself, instead conducting their business from a gym basement.
The novel alternates between the viewpoints of two officers, Lucius Boggs and Denny Rakestraw. Boggs, as they and their partners traverse the streets of Darktown. Boggs on the one hand is a bit disillusioned to how well he’s serving his community, while Rakestraw’s naivety is challenged at the side of a grizzled, racist cop who lords over the town as if he owned it. When a black woman is murdered and the last man she was seen with is a retired white cop, things come to a head.
Through the course of the novel, Mullen really paints a picture of how precarious a tightrope it was for the black officers in enforcing the law as best they could with what little they had in resources and support. Hell, there’s a point where just a simple drive out of the city comes with the prospect of an untimely end. Not to mention the open hostility and interference on the part of especially resentful and racist white officers in the department. Plus, the characters feel very genuine and flawed, where a lesser writer might leave them gimmicky and flat.
I enjoy crime fiction, though I don’t normally gravitate towards the police procedural, but this was such an engrossing book aided by a rich historical backdrop and some tight character development, that it felt in no way like a by-the-numbers murder mystery. Atlanta leaps off the page and may be the most interesting character of them all in this novel. And if Mullen has more stories in him revolving around the Atlanta region, I’ll be sure to check them out.