Home > 2010, 21st Century, American Literature, Highly Recommended, Historical Crime Fiction, Polar > Darktown by Thomas Mullen – black police officers in Atlanta in 1948. Highly recommended

Darktown by Thomas Mullen – black police officers in Atlanta in 1948. Highly recommended

Darktown by Thomas Mullen (2016) French title: Darktown. Translated by Anne-Marie Carrière.

As often, I’m late with my billets. April and May are a sort of rat race, all for good reasons but I didn’t have a lot of time for blogging, reading other bloggers’ posts and reading books. I read Darktown by Thomas Mullen in March, before Quais du Polar as I knew that the author would be at the festival. I did have the opportunity to get the sequel of Darktown, Lightning Men, and have it signed.

Darktown is considered at historical crime fiction as it is set in 1948 in Atlanta. That year, under political pressure, the Atlanta Police Department hires their first black police officers.

They are not welcome by their white peers and are second zone policemen. They can’t arrest white suspects. They can’t carry a weapon. They can’t drive a squad car and they can’t enter the police headquarters and have to use the basement of a gym instead.

Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are part of this new team of eight black policemen managed by a white officer, McInnis. They operate in Darktown, a black neighborhood in Atlanta and share the territory with a team of white officers, Lionel Dunlow and Denny Rakestraw.

When patrolling one night, Boggs and Smith see a black woman taken away in a white’s car. She’s Lily Ellsworth and the driver is Brian Underhill, an ex-cop. Later, Lily’s body is found beaten to death in a dump. No one cares about her murder, except for Boggs and Smith.

They will do their best to find her murderer, even if this investigation crosses some dangerous lines and puts them at risk.

Thomas Mullen created a set of characters that works really well. Boggs and Smith are both black but don’t come from the same background. Boggs comes from a poor family and went to France as a soldier during WWI. He knows violence and ingrained racism aimed at him. Smith is the son of a bourgeois black family; his father is a well-known reverent who fights for black people’s rights through the system. Smith is educated and lived a rather sheltered life, until he made the decision to help his community by applying to the Atlanta Police Department. This duo complements each other. Boggs needs Smith’s calm and education to smooth his edges. Smith needs Boggs’s street smartness.

The duo of white cops is another story. Lionel Dunlow is the old school policeman: violent, racist and corrupt. Darktown is his fief and he acts as if he owns everyone’s life and, in a sense, he does. Rakestraw is a newbie who wants to play by the book and recoils from gratuitous violence. He hates his partner but he knows that Dunlow is well-respected in the department. Rake is more progressist, less racist and willing to cross the line and throw a hand to his new black colleagues but he’s prudent.

The investigation progresses and Mullen shows the atmosphere of the town. He describes Smith’s and Boggs’s quotidian and the constant humiliations that they must swallow. It’s like a flock of tiny needles picking at them all the time. You need a tough skin to let them slide and keep your calm and your dignity.

This black team can’t work properly because they are black. Nobody cares about the death of a black young woman. Nobody cares to find the real murderer and the police would rather fabricate a perpetrator to give the illusion of justice. All layers of the white community in Atlanta collaborate, actively or not at keeping black people down and maintaining the status quo.

Were these behaviors a surprise? Of course not. Any reader would expect this kind of atmosphere in 1948 in Atlanta. But Mullen’s talent is such that he makes you feel a bit of what Smith and Boggs experience and I felt so angry on their behalf that I couldn’t read Darktown at night. I was so worked up by what I was reading that it was not sleep inducing.

Darktown and its new police squad is the kind of topic that Colson Whitehead could have written about. Thomas Mullen is white and while he was signing my copy of Lightning Men, I asked him whether people had questioned his writing about black history and with black characters. It shouldn’t be an issue but it could be nowadays. He said that, no, he didn’t have any issues with that, probably because he did his homework before writing and had the facts and the atmosphere right.

Very highly recommended.

  1. May 14, 2023 at 12:43 pm

    It sounds great. But yea, the whole thing about lived experience and whether this is his story to tell, would concern me slightly. 🤷🏻‍♀️


    • May 14, 2023 at 10:03 pm

      I think that, as an American, it is his story to tell. It’s part of the country’s history. We need white people to write about these topics just like we need feminist men.

      I’ll always prefer a well-documented and level-headed white writer to a sloppy and oriented black one. (Same with men writing about feminism) The best ones are of course the level-headed, well-documented writers with lived experience but there aren’t so many James Baldwins out there.

      Things progress quicker if both parties involved acknowledge historical facts and the wrong doings and are willing to move forward.


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