Atlanta, 1948. In this city, all crime is black and white.
On one side of the tracks are the rich, white neighbourhoods; on the other, Darktown, the African-American area guarded by the city’s first black police force of only eight men. These cops are kept near-powerless by the authorities: they can’t arrest white suspects; they can’t drive a squad car; they must operate out of a dingy basement.
When a poor black woman is killed in Darktown having been last seen in a car with a rich white man, no one seems to care except for Boggs and Smith, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Pressured from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust of their community and even their own lives to investigate her death.
Their efforts bring them up against a brutal old-school cop, Dunlow, who has long run Darktown as his own turf – but Dunlow’s idealistic young partner, Rakestraw, is a young progressive who may be willing to make allies across colour lines . . .
I received a free copy of this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Release date: 13th September 2016
Straight out of the blocks, something about Darktown spoke to me. I like edgy. I like when a book or a film deals with sensitive material. And the description for this book certainly seemed to deal with a very sensitive subject, and particularly appropriate in the current world: race and the police. So why was I having reservations as I set out on a journey back to 1948 Atlanta, Georgia? Well too often a book dealing with subjects this raw get so close to being as bold as they should be, then back off at the final hurdle. They just don’t quite hit the nail on the head. But how does Thomas Mullen manage with Dark Town?
The simple answer is he handles the subject incredibly. I love the book. The characters are wonderfully developed. If I were to split the characters as “good” and “bad” you find yourself empathising with and rooting for the good guys, and deeply loathing the bad guys. But that is something else Thomas Mullen does expertly: the line between good and bad is blurred, almost to the point of being impossible to determine. The white police officers are corrupt, passing favours for ex-officers and high-profile white people in Atlanta. They may be notionally good in so far as they are police, but that’s about it. Many of them are bigoted racists, with affiliations to the Ku Klux Klan.
A major theme running through Darktown, in fact the central theme, is that of race, and more importantly racism and the subjugation of a group people. While it may have been considered progressive, the instigating of eight black police officers, the truth is far from it. The officers in question are not allowed in the main precinct. They cannot use a patrol car, and they certainly cannot arrest a white person, no matter the crime. At this time, racial segregation was rife, with restaurants and services set up with either a window where black people would be served as second-rate citizens, or in black-only premises. They even had their own part of town, known as Darktown.
The problems stretch further, with limited ability to investigate crimes, and a lack of desire on the part of white officers to do anything more than blame black people for black murders. And so, Mullen amps up the tensions throughout the story against this volatile backdrop. Things start taking a real downward turn when Officers Boggs and Smith see a white man knock a lamppost over, and stop him in his car, with a black girl in the passenger side. Officer Dunlow is called in to proceed with the stop, only to let the man go. We later discover the two know one another.
Later, the same girl is found dead in Darktown. While found by black officers, white officers are called in to investigate. Or not, as events transpire. Dunlow and his fellow white officers really don’t care, unless they can pin it on someone from Darktown as quickly as possible. Boggs and Smith pursue it fervently, however, putting their downtime into solving the seemingly unsolvable. Their frustrations come through the ink on the pages, and I found myself becoming frustrated for them. At every turn, their attempts to find answers hit barrier, after barrier, and only seem to gather the tiniest pieces of the puzzle.
As the investigation progresses, Dunlow’s partner, Denny Rakestraw, a Second World War vet, starts to question what he sees. Not necessarily because he thinks the black officers are his equals, but because he doesn’t agree with what he sees. Eventually, he begins to work with the Darktown officers.
The closer Darktown comes to its conclusion, the more and more invested in the story and the characters I felt. I found myself wanting Boggs and Smith to catch a break, get to the bottom of the case and catch a killer. I found myself cheering inside whenever Rakestraw went against the other white officers, and getting annoyed with him whenever he didn’t go far enough. And to Dunlow and the other, older, bigoted officers, I felt a growing anger and hatred.
What Mullen has done with Darktown is take a very difficult, divisive and passion-inducing topic, and made a rip-roaring mystery-thriller out of it. The suspense and the feeling of menace just ratchet up as the book progresses. The darkness and menace that seems to overshadow the black officers doesn’t overpower. With this book, Thomas Mullen has crafted an intense, passionate story of overcoming adversity, no matter what is thrown at you. And in my interview with him, he mentioned working on the follow up to Darktown. I cannot wait to read that, if this is anything to go by.