The 1950’s in America was a time for great change in the South. It was the start of desegregation. African Americans were finally permitted to move out of the ghetto and into nicer neighborhoods. The U.S. Supreme Court declared black and white segregated schools to be unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Ed.
Thomas Mullen’s upcoming novel, Darktown, takes place right around this time period, in 1948, nearly four decades after the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, and as the Jim Crow era was starting to wane. It centers around the integration of black officers into the Atlanta Police Department, the power struggles and racism that accompany it, and the lengths to which the white officers would go to get the black officers off the force, but also the lengths the black officers would take in order to find justice. There’s a lot of secrecy that takes place in the novel, a lot of police brutality by officers who feel that they are untouchable. But no one is really untouchable.
Black officers Boggs and Smith are rookies on the force, as are the other six black officers that they work with. They’re both war veterans, although Boggs has never experienced combat. Boggs, being a preacher’s son and growing up in a well-to-do part of Darktown, always does the right thing, even if he wants to do otherwise. On the other hand, Smith and his family were directly affected by the riots, and he is not above getting his hands a little dirty every once in a while. There’s a camaraderie between the two, and, while they do judge the other on occasion, they always have each others back.
White officers Dunlow and Rakestraw have a very different relationship. Dunlow, the senior officer of the two, has no problem frequenting the local brothel, making deals with the bootleggers, letting people off the hook, and beating black men in Darktown for no reason. Rakestraw, not yet seasoned, disagrees with the way Dunlow polices. Unlike Dunlow and the rest of the white officers, Rakestraw does not share the opinion that black officers should be kicked off the police force. He also feels that they shouldn’t be restricted in their duties, that they should be allowed to police their own neighborhoods.
When a young black woman with connections to a congressman is found murdered, and it becomes evident that the case is not going to be handled the way it should be, Boggs and Smith take matters into their own hands, determined to solve the murder despite the consequences, and with an unlikely ally. As they start to uncover the truth, they also uncover corruption in the department that goes much higher than they could have imagined.
With a tone that is reminiscent of HBO’s series The Wire, this novel is anything but predictable, and at times had me gasping in shock. It’s a great lesson into the history of our country, showing us how far we have come, but also, how far we still have to go in order to really rid ourselves of racism and the fear that it still instills. It also begs the question, how far would you go, how much would you be willing to sacrifice in order to find the truth.