When I read the premise of this book, I was immediately intrigued. I was surprised by how easily historical fact and fiction were so cleverly weaved together by the author, Thomas Mullen. Darktown is the story of the first black police officers hired by the Atlanta Police Department. Mainly it’s the story of partners Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, who despite being treated like ignorant children playing dress up by the white officers of the Atlanta PD, are proud to be serve as officers of the law. Boggs, the son of a preacher and war veteran, tries to do his best while suffering the indignities and limitations that the Jim Crow south opposes upon him while patrolling the streets. Tommy Smith deals with the same injustices Boggs does, but isn’t quite as stoic and buttoned up as his partner. The pair also deals with the fact that despite being officers, they are not allowed to enter the whites only police precinct and instead have to use the basement of the blacks only YMCA as their unofficial headquarters, are not issued squad cars, and have to call on white officers to handle any situations involving white citizens because they are not allowed to question, issue citations or arrest them.
One night while the two walk their assigned beat, they see a car driving quite erratically until it crashes into a lamp post, knocking it down and then turning around to flee. The two stop the car, which is driven by a middle aged white man who obviously doesn’t take their status as officers of the law seriously, and in the passenger seat is a young black woman. Both officers notice that the girl is scared, and has obvious wounds to her face, most likely inflicted by the white man driving the vehicle. The driver is rude and condescending to them while they wait for white officers to arrive. Boggs and Smith try to ask the girl in the car if she is alright, but the driver deflects any questions and continues to be belligerent towards the officers until a squad car pulls up, carrying white officers Dunlow and Rakestraw. Dunlow is a middle aged cop hell bent on getting rid of the newly appointed black officers, and lets his bigotry and racism be known to those around him. Rakestraw, a young rookie cop and war veteran, doesn’t care for the way his seasoned partner handles situations involving black people, but doesn’t do anything to stop him either. Rake is painfully aware of his rookie status and doesn’t want to do anything that may make him enemies on the force. Dunlow speaks to the driver and it’s made clear to Boggs and Smith that the situation is handled and they should go back to patrolling their beat.
Later, when the body of the girl that had been in the car with the unknown white man is found in a dump with a gunshot wound, Boggs and Smith immediately assume that the man who had been driving the car that night must be her killer. They start to investigate her murder and learn that the girl is Lilly Ellsworth, a smart and well-liked girl who had recently moved to Atlanta from the country and had previously worked as a maid for a prominent white family. They also learn the identity of the man driving the car she was last seen in, an ex-cop named Brian Underhill who had been fired from the force for illegal gambling. The more Boggs and Smith learn about Lilly Ellsworth and Brian Underhill, the more intertwined her murder becomes with white members of the police force and other powerful white men. Despite being told by their superior officer to leave the case alone, Boggs and Smith continue to investigate the murder and find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations that may cost them their badge, and possibly even their lives.
While Boggs and Smith are continuing their investigation, Officer Rakestraw becomes increasingly troubled by the way his partner, Dunlow, treats black people and is made aware of his partner’s deeply shady behavior. Although Rake knows that undermining his partner is dangerous, he begins an investigation of his own that eventually crosses paths with the investigation being lead by Boggs and Smith. What ensues is a story of corruption, murder, moral dilemmas, racial injustice and the courage it takes to stand up for what is right even when it may cost those willing to do so their lives.
Darktown is intelligently and entertainingly written with complex and interesting characters. The subject matter is also timely, considering the continued occurrence of black men and women being unjustly killed by police officers in our current society. The parallels Darktown draws between history and today make you question just how far we have come from our turbulent, blood soaked past. As a southerner myself, I’m sad to say that Mullen expertly captures the divide between the races that still lingers today.
Rumor has it that the book will be turned into a movie, and Jamie Foxx is attached to the project. I certainly hope they do this story justice, and capture just how good it is.
I encourage everyone to read this book, tell your friends about it, as it deserves to be read by as many people as possible. I really enjoyed it and it was impossible to put down, and it truly grips you until the very last page. Mullen explores the time period with a cunning ability to pull you back in time and imagine a world vastly different but yet similar to the world we live in now. The story and characters stay with you and make you think, the way great literature is supposed to. Race relations, especially in the South, is a tricky topic but Mullen manages to be both brutally honest and thoughtful in his explorations of the atrocities people of color have had to face in our country. I applaud him for taking such a risk with his writing and ultimately have it pay off by the finished product being such an engaging and thought provoking novel.