Darktown by Thomas Mullen

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Darktown by Thomas Mullen

Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Archetypal noir crime drama – the first black cops in Atlanta are on the trail of a murderer no-one seems bothered about catching. Sharp, tight, a thoughtful, gritty read. Stylish, but with substance to match.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2017
Publisher: Abacus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0349142074

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Atlanta, Georgia. The Deep South. This is country that fought to keep the right to own slaves, and would continue fighting every last bastion of segregation as the United States slowly clawed its way to a humane system of governance of all her people. That's a history that today's southerners are variously proud or ashamed of, or choose to ignore, or hope to forget, or continue to strive against. Variously, because people are also individuals and we all hold to our own view of what is right. For many of us, what is right is sometimes hard to draw the lines around…but what is wrong is much more clear-cut. Divisions based on skin colour, or race, or creed are wrong. No two ways about that.

Back in 1948, there were still two ways about it. In 1948 in a progressive move Atlanta enrolled eight black men as police officers. Leastways, they enrolled them as negro police officers. That distinction was important. It meant that they couldn't walk to court in their uniforms (and if they wanted to appear in court in those uniforms, they had to get changed in a cupboard), they couldn't patrol white districts, they weren't allowed patrol cars or even a precinct other than the makeshift one fathomed out of the basement of a black district YMCA. But they were cops. And they were cops that presumably had a very different view of the world to their white counterparts.

It seems their white counterparts didn't quite agree with that cops bit…they were scared of what might happen if you gave black men the right to carry arms on the street. Uniform and badge or not.

This is the back-drop to Darktown. Honouring the original eight, Mullen keeps the number the same, but he creates two fictional characters who may or may not be based on those trail-blazers. It's tempting to look into their backgrounds for similarities and discrepancies, but let's not. Let's allow Boggs and Smith to stand for all of the eight, for all of their struggles, and for those that would no doubt follow down too many decades after their first appointment. Let's allow them to stand for struggles that in the same way, or in only marginally different ways, are still going on and – given the political shockwaves of 2016 – are likely to worsen in the coming years.

Forgive the long intro. Sometimes you read a book that hits harder because of when you read it. This is one of those. For a historical crime novel, it whacks one hell of a current political clout. Think on… it says.

Ok, so maybe you're not interested in politics, maybe you just want to read the latest, best in crime fiction, fiction written in the best traditions of the post-war 'noir' hard-bitten crime that might have shuffled off with the demise of Hammett and Chandler. Darktown is as black, as 'noir' as it gets.

Of course it helps that it's set in those black and white days of the immediate post-war. Black and white, not just in race terms, but cinematographically also. The down and dirty crime fiction of the time was made to be seen in the grey dark, in the rain, and the fog. Mullen's setting doesn't call much for rain, so instead he uses the sultriness of the southern summer nights, the sweat and stink of humanity, getting by in weather that just does not help. It has the same impact. It places the people at the mercy of something bigger than themselves.

It's easy to read this as a political tract, and think that the story doesn't much matter. In some ways that's probably true, but in others it is absolutely the story that matters. Just as with Chandler, the writing style will grip you long after you've got to the end and found out what happened and why and who did or didn't get away with what, and it's that style that will make you want to read it again – but first off it is the story that will keep you up reading to the end.

A young black woman is found dead on a garbage heap. Boggs and Smith feel bad about this, because they were among the last to see her alive, in a car with a white guy who had smashed a street lamp. A guy who wasn't even going to get a traffic violation once their white colleagues arrived on the scene. They remember her bright yellow dress running off into the night.

No-one really cares. Except Boggs and Smith.

Until a white cop, a war vet, with an old school partner and a distaste for beating out confessions from folk who probably aren't guilty, even out of black guys, also starts to take an interest. Parallel investigations start to take place. Three cops. None of them trusting the system, and barely trusting each other, start to dig. Each for his own reasons…but closing in on something that matters to all of them.

Unfortunately, every action they take just makes matters worse for the people they are trying to help…and it's not doing their own health and safety a great deal of good either.

I'm not always convinced by book blurbs, but when your read the cover notes of this one that tell you it is Magnificent and shocking (Sunday Times), Fascinating (Guardian), Incendiary (New York Times) you can take them at face value.

It's a tight book. It will make you care about the key characters for all it tells you so little about who they really are. You'll flinch at the violence, punching when it needs to, but often restrained. You'll cringe at the bigotry, for all we know it hasn't changed as much as it should have in the last seventy years. Above all, you'll hear echoes of a long dark Atlanta summer that somehow just sits there seething in the background.

Utterly brilliant!

I'm now going to take my own advice and check out Mullen's earlier novel The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers… for more tales from the deep south we can also recommend Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman.

Buy Darktown by Thomas Mullen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Darktown by Thomas Mullen at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Darktown by Thomas Mullen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Darktown by Thomas Mullen at Amazon.com.


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