Thomas Mullen's latest novel, Darktown, was snatched up by Jamie Foxx's production company to be made into a television series before it even hit shelves last fall. Just a few pages in and one can see why.
The captivating murder mystery and police procedural is precisely right for this time, when it would do good for many Americans to learn something about the complexity of race relations and policing in the post-World War II South. This suspenseful novel penetrates that historical void in American policing that's easily forgotten but was the foundation for what has come to be known as modern community policing.
Darktown tells the story of two of the first eight black police officers hired, due to political pressure, by the Atlanta Police Department in the sweltering heat of the summer of 1948. Based in reality, the novel blows life into what it must have been like to be a black man with a badge and gun and paycheck from the city, but without a patrol car or the ability to arrest whites or even the permission to punch the clock at police headquarters.
The black officers, despised by their white peers, a quarter of whom belong to the Ku Klux Klan, must bow time and again to the orders, complacency and corruption of those white peers, for fear they'll lose their jobs or, worse, embarrass their community, those whose subtle yessir-but-sir, pre-civil rights activism got them where they are.
Mullen's work of historical fiction does what many nonfiction accounts perhaps can't, by getting deep inside the minds of both the black and white cops on the force and chewing away at the central conflicts: the bias and fear and hesitation to do what they know is right.
Central to the story are Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, both war veterans with diverse wartime experiences and attitudes. Boggs, the son of a preacher and community leader, wonders if he should pursue justice or accept the role he has been cast to play: the passive cop who minds his own business, stays in bounds and abides by the rules, spoken and not. Smith cares less about pleasing the people, and his bravado and refusal to accept the status quo make him the more carefree of the partners.
On the other side are the white cops, with their authority and patrol cars and freedom to roam. Lionel Dunlow is a brutal redneck who slowly comes unhinged over the audacity of the do-gooder "Negro policemen" because he has long been a corrupted recipient of kickbacks from the bootleggers and brothel mothers in Darktown, the black section of Atlanta the black officers were hired to patrol. Law and order is rain on his parade, and the black cops who dare to try to do right are vinegar in his bourbon.
But his partner, Denny Rakestraw, a young and (for that time) progressive cop, is interested in the same kind of justice the black cops want, even if it means he'll be branded a sympathizer. He must navigate two worlds: earning the trust of the black cops and tiptoeing around the whites.
The plot is set in motion by the murder of a young black girl, a high-hopes immigrant from rural Georgia last seen with a mysterious white ex-cop who was kicked off the force with others after a numbers-running investigation some years before. The working officers, black and white, begin to learn that the group of ex-cops, called the Rust Division, have been carrying out dirty work for police and politicians, and the farm girl might be another victim.
This revelation casts Rakestraw, Smith and Boggs against what seems to be the entire APD, save a few uncorrupted officers. The three are driven by the mysterious death to quietly work against the tide of repression, and they break all sorts of rules along the way.
Imagine trying to solve a murder without access to evidence or an autopsy or a list of potential suspects. Even their bosses want them to stay off the trail. But things just don't add up.
Mullen brings an insightful perspective to the book that goes beyond the rigid reconstruction that might be found in a nonfiction account. It's an effort that feels legitimate and rarely over the top. I found myself wondering, since I finished the book, whether the more intense scenes were written for a television audience. Then I thought: What does that matter?
While true to history and context, the book is a heck of a ride.
Contact Ben Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 310-6066. Follow @gangrey.