Set in 1950 on the streets of Atlanta, Mullen’s latest emotionally-charged story is a worthy follow-up to last year’s hit novel, Darktown.
Returning are Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, African American police officers who are trying to keep the peace in Atlanta’s racially divided neighborhoods. The already dangerous and complex task is complicated by the fact that neither Boggs nor Smith–or any other black police officer–is allowed to arrest a white man, even if they see him breaking the law.
Boggs and Smith don’t have a squad car, either. Instead, the two cops walk the streets of Darktown, a mostly black part of the city, doing their best to keep order and ensure residents are safe. This time out, their biggest problem is the selling of illegal alcohol and drug trafficking, which the two officers investigate with urgency as things heat up around them.
On the other side of town, Denny Rakestraw continues doing his best to fit in with his fellow white cops, which is tough because, unlike most of his peers, he’s not a racist. The events of last year’s book–which shows Denny’s willingness to work with African American cops, even against his own bigoted and violent partner–follow Rakestraw, who is no longer trusted or respected by the men he works with.
The problems continue for Denny when the majority of his neighborhood decides they need to find a way to stop African Americans from moving in around them. While some propose a more peaceful (as peaceful as proposing a racist agenda can be, anyway) method of raising money to buy out the black home owners, others are in favor of using violence to get rid of them. Among those in the second group is Dale Simpkins, Denny’s brother-in-law, a proud white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan.
As the Klan turns violent, an innocent man is killed–forcing Denny to choose between his family and his conscience, knowing full well that either path will lead to bigger problems for both him and his family one way or another.
Likewise, Boggs and Smith find themselves at a similar crossroads when they discover that white men are playing a pivotal role in flooding the Darktown streets with alcohol and drugs. With no legal authority to pursue white people regardless of circumstance, the two cops are once again faced with a racially-charged conundrum.
Set roughly two years after Darktown, Thomas Mullen’s Lightning Men can absolutely be read as a standalone novel. Mullen does a fine job developing his three main characters, all of whom have serious flaws, but even more redeeming qualities. The plot is tight and goes back and forth between characters smoothly, and Mullen walks the fine line between staying true to what history demands and weaving in enough fiction to keep readers off-balance and flipping pages.
Tragically, though it’s set decades in the past, Mullen’s novel does feel timely and relevant to today’s headlines, as racial tension is still far from a thing of the past in America. The author’s unflinching approach to confronting hot-button issues head-on gives Lightning Men a real, gritty, and honest feel from start to finish.
While Mullen doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, Lightning Men is still very much a character-driven crime novel first and foremost–and a darn good one at that.
Author: Thomas Mullen
Series: Darktown #2
Pages: 384 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Atria / 37 INK
Release Date: September 12, 2017
Book Spy Rating: 8/10