Darktown - Thomas Mullen
Darktown - Thomas Mullen ****
A new crime novel or series has got to do whatever it takes to get noticed and stand out from the crowd, but I wasn't sure I liked the approach adopted by Thomas Mullen for Darktown. Set in Atlanta in 1948 and dealing with an investigation carried out by some of the state's first black policemen, the period setting is a definitely a unique one and the main characters have to deal with circumstances that are far from those in a typical crime novel. The naked brutality of the treatment however makes Darktown difficult to like, as the Negro police officers have to overcome deep prejudice, facing stark open racism, threats and brutality - and that's just from their fellow white members of the police force. It's hard not to become emotionally involved in such a heated situation however, and fortunately, the case Boggs and Smith are involved in has a dramatic pull of its own.
Initially however, Darktown is tough going as Thomas Mullen seems to dwell on and even revel in every opportunity to show black people being ground down into the dirt by racist attitudes, oppression, brutality and bigotry. I've no doubts that the level of abuse, the threats, the beatings and the killings are no exaggeration of the reality, and we're all aware that the race topic is still a hot one in the US police force, but it's probably fair to say that a history lesson on the roots of racial prejudice and intolerance is not the main reason why someone picks up a crime novel. Fortunately, once the investigation gets underway, Mullen manages to integrate the social commentary very well into the fabric of the case.
The case then, while it has familiar police procedural and ground-work aspects and doesn't have any unexpected twists, isn't just a regular investigation that just happens to be set in a different period. A young black woman has been found dead in a back alley in 'Darktown', the downtown Auburn Avenue district of Atlanta known for its brothels, moonshine and gambling (even after years of watching old b&w noir films, I still don't know what exactly 'numbers running' is). Boggs and Smith, two of only eight black policemen engaged by the city to work the beat, have had an earlier encounter with the woman, seeing her on the night of her death in the car of a white man involved in a drunk driving incident. The man is Brian Underhill, a former police officer, but somehow that detail doesn't seem to make its way through to the official report when the woman's body is found among garbage a few days later. The white detectives seem to be surprisingly reluctant to investigate further, so Lucius Boggs, taking his duty as one of the first black police officers seriously, decide to do some digging for himself.
Detective work lies well beyond the remit of black police officers, and as you can imagine, his efforts are not only regarded with suspicion or discouraged, but actively hampered with direct threats being made against him and his family. What do the police and the establishment really have to hide about the death of an unknown young black woman found in an unsavory part of town where decent white folk never venture? It's not just Boggs and Smith however, but one of the white police officers, rookie Dennis Rakeshaw, has also had enough of the endemic corruption and racism in the force, a problem whose worst face is epitomised by his partner, Dunlow. Rake makes a few investigations of his own and is similarly shocked by the level of corruption and cover-up that is evident. His probing around however is not going to make him terribly popular either.
The characterisation sounds a little broad when described like this; the good cop and bad cop, the white racists cops and the decent black cops. Mullen makes some effort to blur the lines a little and add some grey area between the black and the white, but when placed in the context of seething race hated expressed in every encounter, it still feels somewhat contrived. Care however is taken to establish a little more nuance in the family background and history of a number of the characters, as well as from experience that some of them have lived through during the recent war. Even the history of the American Civil War remains fresh in the memory of some, and age-old grudges and prejudices still persists in a way that forms hardened ideas and attitudes. No-one is entirely good or evil and their beliefs and behaviour doesn't come out of nowhere just for the convenience of the plot. They are all shown to be but a product of the society they live in and the history they've experienced.
The case of the young dead black woman in Darktown then is not just a contemporary case dressed up in period detail. It has relevance and it brings up a lot of issues relating to the treatment of black people that you might not have been aware of previously. Oh sure, you think you can imagine how bad the racism might have been in the state of Georgia in the 1940s, and you might be aware of shocking discriminatory legislation in place (although a charge of "reckless eyeballing" of a white woman is a new one on me), but Thomas Mullen's novel finds many other sinister aspects to shock and astonish the reader and raise a lot of questions. Critically however the question is not just how this could ever have been allowed to happen, but it also carries with it the implication and the suggestion that not much has really changed
Darktown by Thomas Mullen is published by Little Brown on 13 September 2016. It's due to be made into a major TV series from Jamie Foxx and Sony Pictures Television.