DARKTOWN BY THOMAS MULLEN
“They have to face not just the usual obstacles, but racism and segregation”
Appropriately for book containing so much bleakness, Darktown opens with a light going out. When a car crashes into a streetlamp, it catches the attention of two black police officers and sets off a chain of events that will directly lead to the murder of a mysterious young woman – a murder those officers, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, will risk their lives to solve. The story takes place in Atlanta in 1948, and the colour of Boggs’ and Smith’s skin is – sadly – significant. The pair don’t just have to overcome the usual obstacles in their search for the truth, but also the horrors of racism and segregation, with the majority of their greatest challenges coming from their fellow officers in the Atlanta Police Department.
The book is directly inspired by (and dedicated to) the first eight black policemen in Atlanta, and is full of real-world history. We see our protagonists forced to operate out of a local YMCA, because they’re not allowed on the premises of their own police headquarters. Unbelievably, this is one of many details in Darktown directly lifted from the true story of those trailblazing officers, neatly weaved into the narrative. The level of research is astonishing, plunging you into a world so tense, unjust and vivid, you’ll have to take frequent breaks to preserve your sanity – not an easy task with a mystery this compelling.
In the pursuit of that mystery, Boggs and Smith are not the only officers we follow. Two white policemen, Lionel Dunlow and his rookie partner Denny “Rake” Rakestraw, have their own separate narrative, encountering Boggs and Smith occasionally, and significantly. Dunlow is a vile racist, with Rake frequently astonished by, but silently complicit with, his brutality. His violent attitudes are so all-encompassing that Dunlow borders on being a bit one-note, certainly to begin with, but Rake is a fascinating character. A veteran, Rake operated as a scout who had toured Nazi concentration camps. Both World Wars are used as subtle parallels to the treatment of black people in America.
Darktown is already in line for a TV adaptation, which makes sense. It often feels like a cross between True Detective and The Wire. But don’t wait for the show to air, this book is too important to ignore. In an age of #Blacklivesmatter, Darktown is required reading. It may open with a smashed streetlamp, but it illuminates a forgotten (all-too-recent) period of history containing repercussions still being felt today. Beyond essential.