Whenever I'm getting ready to fly I want to make sure that I have a book that will grab me and hold my attention for several hours. Such a novel accompanied me home to Florida from Baltimore last week. "Darktown," by Thomas Mullen was one of the most talked about books at Book Expo in Chicago in May and it lives up to the hype.
Based upon the true story of the first black police force in Atlanta, Georgia, in the late 1940's, this book has been billed as a police procedural but it is much more than that. In fact, the central murder mystery is probably pretty easy for those of us who thrive on thrillers to solve, but it is the historically accurate tale of the eight officers and how they had to operate with both hands tied behind their backs that is at the crux of this novel.
Begun as an experiment and a quid pro quo between black leaders of Atlanta and then mayor William Hartsfield, the first black officers were brought on board amid threats and intimidation from white officers, many of whom were still not- so-covert members of the Klan, and were hell-bent on seeing that these fellow police officers would not be successful, or even live to tell their stories. http://historyatlanta.com/atlantas-first-black-police-officers/
Partners Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith patrol the Auburn Avenue neighborhood on foot, black officers are not allowed to drive police cars, where they are distrusted by their own black neighbors as sell-outs. They are only allowed to intercede when the crime is black on black. They do not have jurisdiction to arrest whites, a fact that diminishes respect and authority to the point where they feel emasculated.
When they see a white man, obviously drunk driving in their neighborhood, (he's knocked over a street lamp), they stop him and request license and registration. The man's disdain for the officers is painful even to read. The fact that he has a terrified young black female passenger sporting a bruise on her face, is ominous. Boggs and Smith are required to call in white officers to handle what should obviously be an arrest, but when the most terrifyingly racist officer, Dunlow, arrives on scene, we know that nothing will happen.
A few days later, that same young woman's body shows up, abandoned on a garbage dump, with a bullet hole through her chest, setting in motion an investigation. Hampered by the double standards of the time, a black body is of little interest to the Atlanta police department, and black officers are not allowed to work out of police headquarters with their peers, or even have access to reports, Boggs and Smith pursue leads on the sly putting themselves at even greater risk than usual.
Mullen does an excellent job with characterization, delving into the motivations of officers like Lucius, son of a well-connected local minister, who could have made a safer career choice. He also addresses the nuanced ways in which a new batch of more educated, younger white officers, evidenced by Dunlow's new partner, Rakestraw, abhor the violent, racist, old ways of policing, while being fearful of showing too much solidarity with the black officers.
This is a solid piece of historical fiction tied up with a murder mystery. It is also a terrific work of social commentary that will leave readers wondering just how far our police departments have actually come on that long road to equal justice under the law.