A Book Spy Review: ‘Darktown’ by Thomas Mullen

Darktown Thomas MullenDarktown is a story about a lot of things. On the surface, in its most simplest form, it’s a mystery novel about a woman who was killed and the police investigation that followed. However, Thomas Mullen’s latest book is much, much more than just a crime novel. 

Darktown is story about eight men–one was a typesetter for a local newspaper, one was a butcher, two had sold insurance, another had been a handyman, one was a teacher, and the last two had been janitors–that have four things in common. They all grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, are of Christian faith, and they’re all police officers.

Oh, and they’re all black men living in 1948–when racism was so rampant that Negro officers couldn’t even arrest white folks.

The Atlanta Police Department was pressured into hiring their first black officers, the eight men I described above. To call them police officers, however, requires some context because their job was very different from their white counterparts.

These eight officers weren’t allowed to drive squad cars, they had to patrol the Negro neighborhoods on foot. They couldn’t arrest white suspects either, instead they’d have to call dispatch from a nearby telephone and request that a white officer come to the scene and make an arrest for them–which more often than not, the white cops wouldn’t do.

To top it all off, they couldn’t even enter the police headquarters building. They had their own “headquarters,” which was in the basement of a local YMCA.  They could carry firearms, but that made the white people very uncomfortable. And if a white person ever reported seeing one of them drinking alcohol publicly, one of two things happened: they were suspended without pay or fired on the spot.

Yet even under those circumstances, eight men had the courage to break the barrier and become the first black police officers in Atlanta, Georgia. Two of them, though, went even further and risked everything–including their lives–to solve a crime that nobody else seemed to care about.

The Story

Officers Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith were patrolling the Negro streets of Atlanta one night when a Buick came into view driving erratically. That erratic driving lead to the car plowing into a lamppost, nearly knocking it over.

Boggs and Smith prepared to write the driver a citation, but were surprised to find that the driver of the car was a white man. Legally there wasn’t much they could do other than give him a ticket. Unfortunately, both the driver and the officers know this, so the driver steadfastly refuses to cooperate with them.

When asked to produce his licence and registration, the driver responded with racist remarks and a number of obscenities. The officers then noticed that the man wasn’t alone. There was a black woman with him who appeared to have bruising on her face. They tried to talk with her, but the women wouldn’t even look them in the eye. It was the driver who instructed her not to speak, so she didn’t.

Once the white man decided he’d had enough of the questioning, he drove off–knowing full well that the Negro officers can’t do a dang thing about it.

Boggs and Smith called for a white officer to provide assistance. A few blocks later, they saw the same car once again stopped in the middle of a street. The black girl jumped out of the vehicle and ran away, but Boggs and Smith didn’t purse her–a decision they’d later regret wholeheartedly. Instead they stayed with the car, waiting for the white officer to show up.

Officers Lionel Dunlow and his rookie partner Danny Rakestraw, or “Rake” as most people call him, happened to be in the area. And by “happened to be in the area,” I mean Dunlow had been brutally beating a Negro man twenty blocks away. Rake knew his partner was a thundering, blatant racist and suspected he often just trolled the Negro neighborhoods looking for someone to throw a beating to.

The white officers end up letting the driver, a man named Brian Underhill, off without so much as a ticket, which obviously upset Boggs and Smith. But it was a few days later when their anger came to a crescendo, after they discovered a dead body in an overgrown field that doubled as an unofficial dumpster for garbage.

They recognized the yellow dress clinging to the stiff body of the deceased black woman, and knew it was the same woman they’d seen in Underhill’s car.

The sad fact is that nobody seems to really care about the dead black woman other than Boggs and Smith, who weren’t even allowed to investigate her death. They did suggest someone check out the man she was last seen in a car with, and said his name was in their police report–except that it wasn’t. Someone removed Brian Underhill’s name in an effort to protect him, but why?

As the story unfolds it’s revealed that Underhill was a cop, which is why the white police officers let him go that first night he nearly knocked over the lamppost. It also explains why the white cops had his name removed from Boggs’ report–they were protecting one of their own.

While all of this was  going on, Dunlaw and Rakestraw are involved in a number of other incidents, one regarding an escaped convict named James James Jameson–or “Tripple James” for short. Dunlaw continued his racist ways, and while Rakestraw didn’t necessarily agree with what his partner was doing, he never stop him either.

Soon Tripple James is found dead, and Boggs and Smith decide they’ve finally had enough. If nobody else is going to care about these crimes, they will. It’s time they protect one of their own for a change, and together they vow to solve the woman’s murder, risking their jobs and lives as they seek justice and closure for her family. 

Boggs, the son of a preacher, and Smith, a womanizer, are essentially opposites. It’s not quite the relationship that Will Smith’s and Martin Lawrence’s characters have in the Bad Boys movies, but it’s not all that far off either. I loved their back-and-forth banter and the characters work well together, providing an a fun dynamic because of their differences. 

Towards the end of the book Boggs and Smith find themselves with unlikely allies in their pursuit for justice, but there’s also some shocking twists along the way–making Darktown nearly impossible to set down even for the briefest of periods. 

Thomas Mullen has managed to stay true to the past, as ugly as it may be, tackling incredibly sensitive topics (like segregation and racial tension) with incredible grace. On top of that, he also wrote a brilliant mystery novel–and fit it all together with the stroke and touch of a master artist.

Mullen’s novel is sobering reminder of how bad racial tension was back then, but it also shows just how much further we have to go in today’s society. This novel manages to capture all that, without being preachy or overly political. Mullen has incredible talent, and he puts it on full display in Darktown.

If there was a downside to Darktown, it’s that there’s some pretty bad language throughout the book. The N-word is used a lot, but almost exclusively from racist white police officers. The word is never glorified or used lightly, and I cannot stress that enough. In fact, I only mention it so there’s context in case anyone is standing in the bookstore flipping through the pages and happen to look down and see that word being used. 

Also, there are a few low points in the plot when the action isn’t moving quite as fast as you’d like–though I never felt like there was a time when I had to force myself to keep reading, like with other books. I honestly enjoyed this book from cover to cover, and can’t wait to see what Mullen does next!

Quick Update

For those that haven’t heard, Darktown could be hitting televisions across the country very soon! For more on that, click here.

Book Details

Author: Thomas Mullen

Pages: 384 (Hardcover)

Publisher: Atria Books

Release Date: September 13, 2016 (Pre-order now!)

 

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