“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.

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