In Thomas Mullen’s novel DARKTOWN, the murder of a young black woman exposes a secret that goes all the way to the highest levels of Atlanta’s white society.
In post-war Atlanta, LUCIUS BOGGS and TOMMY SMITH are cops. But they’re also black and “Negro policemen” don’t get a lot of respect from either civilians or white cops. Their authority is limited, and whites know flout that limited authority wheneve they feel like it. As when a white man drunkenly plows into a street lamp with a bruised black woman in the passenger seat and repeatedly ignores Lucius’ polite requests to hand over his license. Instead, he simply denies hitting the light pole and rives away … slowly.
The ongoing information about the black police force and how it was formed and where it is located is dripped into the story as needed (sometimes a bit clumsily) along with information on the racial politics of the time and place. Real-life people are mentioned (including Rev. Martin Luther King SENIOR) and there’s a real feeling of verisimilitude to the story.
Boggs and Smith are our dual protagonists—with Boggs being the more sensitive of the two. A preacher’s kid, he regrets not having seen combat in WW2. Smith is more of a ladies’ man, a man who is handsome enough he even evokes admiration from the racist white ladies he meets randomly.
The racism depicted here is both overt—as when a fed-up woman in the Records Department hangs up on Boggs because she thinks she’s done enough work on his behalf—and subtle, which is the hardest kind. (It turns out that black cops were issued badge numbers with suffixes that marked them as “Negro cops” rather than “real” cops.) Boggs has been criticized for using “big words” in his reports and told that he’s not going to get a PhD for his efforts.
Mullen has a real knack for getting southern speech right without overdoing it. (Excellent use of the “might could” construction.) The setting and sense of place is very well done and we definitely get the feeling that the writer is either knows the city well or is a terrific researcher. The information about the black police force informs the mystery, and in these racially charged times, informative.
I didn't know Thomas Mullen's work before this--he's the award-winning author of THE LAST TOWN ON EARTH. I really hope this is the first of many books featuring these characters.