Review: Darktown, by Thomas Mullen
Atria, 2016. 371 pp. $26
Atlanta, late 1940s, a dark night. Two police officers on foot patrol see a black woman in a car driven by a white man, who appears to have struck her. The woman manages to escape the car, but soon after, she turns up dead in an abandoned lot.
If this premise reminds you of a conventional mystery, Darktown is anything but. First of all, the two officers are black, part of a grudging concession by the postwar city government to a small but growing presence of African-American voters. And when I say grudging, I mean that the Atlanta Police Department would rather collectively bite the head off a rattler than accept the presence of these men, who number eight in all. If there’s a way to see them dismissed, convicted of spurious crimes, or left for dead in an alley, the unreconstructed Confederates will find it.
Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, the two officers who witness the woman’s attempt to flee, have already been bound and gagged metaphorically. Like other police, they wear uniforms and badges and carry weapons. But the rules restrict them to black neighborhoods, where they patrol on foot; they have no squad car. They may not investigate crimes, only report them. They may not arrest white suspects—even to try to detain them would be futile–and to have anyone booked, they must call for backup, which may or may not arrive. They may not enter police headquarters, and their “station” is a YMCA basement, where rain leaks down the walls inside.
At the same time, leading voices within the black community demand that they combat the many brutalities white society inflicts, whereas the people the officers arrest accuse them of doing the white man’s job. Why can’t they just look the other way? It’s a no-win situation. Lucius and Tommy not only feel weighed down by competing expectations, they suffer the knowledge that every interaction between black and white may combust at any moment–and if it does, they’ll be blamed.
They were silent as they rode through downtown. They passed restaurants that would not have served them, some of whose waiters or chefs would attack Boggs if he dared walk in. . . . He passed office towers that only granted admittance to Negroes who shined shoes or cleaned bathrooms. He passed white women who would no doubt scream if he made eye contact with them. ‘Reckless eyeballing’ was the official charge police filed in such cases. . . .
Despite all this, however, Lucius and Tommy investigate the young woman’s death and run into heaps of trouble. They do have one ally, though, Dennis Rakestraw, a white rookie cop who may just be more progressive than his peers, and who does some of the inside work that Lucius and Tommy are forbidden to undertake. But their partnership, such as it is, remains uneasy–Mullen conveys that tension very well–and Rakestraw faces significant obstacles of his own. Moreover, every step of the investigation puts more people in jeopardy, several of whom become victims.
For Lucius especially, the son of a prominent preacher, the cost becomes so heavy that he can no longer see where true justice lies, or say for certain that it’s worth the price. And yet he’s aware that he’s a symbol, for his lineage and his uniform, and that if he were to give in, the loss would affect everyone. For his partner, though, the issue is less ambiguous. Tommy’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was lynched for wearing his uniform and marching in a veterans’ parade. To the son, a man who calls himself a man demands justice.
Among the many pleasures and nuances of Darktown is how Mullen compares these two characters’ views, social backgrounds, and dreams. When Tommy attends a party at Lucius’s house, he’s glad he’s dipped into his savings to buy new clothes:
He felt newly conscious of his dropped g’s and propensity for cursing as he spoke with this doctor and that owner of a barbershop empire. He noticed watches and cuff links. More than once a mildly disdainful look faded when he mentioned that he was one of the city’s new police officers, at which point his unpolished qualities suddenly became praiseworthy.
I don’t want to quibble with such an extraordinary novel, but I wish Mullen had found different, less miraculous ways to resolve the story. That’s a drawback, I suppose, of creating drop-dead desperation, but with everything else seeming so real, I had to wonder at how things work out. I also object to a couple of cheap tricks Mullen inserts at the end of two cliff-hanging chapters; he’s too good a writer to need theatrics.
Nevertheless, this is a terrific book.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.