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 . . .
For many years I’ve been recommending Thomas Mullen’s The Many Deaths of The Firefly Brothers as a great American novel set during the Depression era, with its compelling period detail and a couple of superb protagonists in the guise of notorious bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson. On the strength of this, I was keen as mustard to read Mullen’s Darktown, set in the racially charged era of 1940’s Atlanta…
I will quite honestly say that I was held in Darktown’s thrall from start to finish, and felt genuinely engaged with the essence of the period, Mullen’s bold and engaging characterisation, and the compelling plotline which gravitated between claustrophobic tension and heartfelt emotion throughout. Being so firmly rooted within the conflict and racial tension of this period, the language and terms used completely reflect the era, and with our modern day sensibilities there is a slight uneasiness at the language used. However, being so much of its time, and as a testament to the weight of dignity he throws behind his maligned black characters, and the white protagonists, some sympathetic, some hostile, the rhythm, vernacular and cadence of the language used plays an essential role in the book. The depth of Mullen’s historical research shines through from the references to the inherently unjust limitations placed upon black citizens not only in their segregation from whites, but also the lack of legal redress available to them. This is mirrored in the very strict restrictions placed upon his black police officers, Boggs and Smith, as to how they conduct their police business, and the added layer of scrutiny and danger that they have to operate within. Likewise, the impunity that white police officers such as Dunlow operate under is sharply at odds with the black officer’s experience, and gives the crooked Dunlow a very long leash from which to pursue his corrupt ways. Mullen traverses a significant amount of individual black and white experience across different realms of society throughout the book, from a lowly farmer to the higher echelons of political power, and with the distinctive backdrop of the racially and socially divided Atlanta as his backdrop, the depth and realism of his chosen period is perfectly integrated throughout.
The characterisation throughout the book is never less than perfect, with all of the main protagonists, as well as lesser characters having sharply drawn edges, and more importantly, being absolutely believable in their depiction, Consequently, such is the level of emotional engagement with them as a reader, you are completely drawn into their individual stories of bravery, certitude, honour or corruption throughout. Mullen depicts beautifully their moments of doubt, the battle to retain their moral centre when pushed to the limit by injustice and racism, or the depths of depravity that wearing a police badge or holding a position of power can reveal in those that society has deigned to be above all others. The moral integrity of both black officer, Boggs, and white officer Rakestraw, operating from both sides of the racial divide is explored throughout. It was extremely gratifying to see that although this is a book firmly rooted in the differences between black and white experience both figuratively and racially that Mullen avoids plummeting his characters into overly moralistic tropes. Instead he leaves area of grey where we witness as readers bad people doing bad things, and good people being driven to bad actions navigating their way through the tinderbox flashpoints that racial division stirs up, and can then draw our own conclusions on the veracity of their actions.
This is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally compelling read, peopled by a sublime cast of characters and a balanced and realistic portrayal of weighty issues, firmly located in the fascinating and tumultuous period of post war America. Cut through with moments of raw emotion, thought-provoking social observation, and never less than totally engrossing, Darktown is something really quite special indeed, and at times with its exploration of racial divide in America, made this reader ponder how far American society has really progressed when looking at these issues with a contemporary eye. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Little Brown for the ARC)