Stacks of books sit on my bedside table begging to be read. I ignored them and turned my attention to a just-released mystery novel called Darktown, by Thomas Mullen. Yes, I’ve been a mystery fan since my Nancy Drew days, but that’s not the reason.
I live in Dallas, a city where five police officers were shot and killed in July by a sniper who said he wanted to kill white people, “especially white police officers.” This was during a peaceful rally to protest the fatal police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana of two African-American men. The Dallas officers and the protesters they were there to protect were getting along just fine–and then a sniper opened fire. But, I also live in a state where, a year earlier, a 28-year-old black woman was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, arrested and thrown in jail, and died three days later–presumably a suicide by hanging. At the time of her arrest, Sandra Bland was driving to her new job at her Texas alma mater, located in the town where she was stopped. Her traffic violation was for failure to signal while changing lanes. The fact that race is still an issue in this country should be news to no one. Understanding and fixing the problems that make it an issue should be on everyone’s mind.
Suspenseful and well-plotted, Darktown kept me thinking/guessing until the end, but what makes the novel stand out and shine is the way it transports the reader back in time to a lesser known chapter of pre-Civil Rights history.
It’s 1948 and the Atlanta Police Department has been forced to hire its first black officers. Eight men–seven are war veterans, six attended college, all are Christians–and yet they’re not allowed to set foot in police headquarters. Instead, they must report to work in the basement of a YMCA that serves the ‘colored community.’ Arrest white suspects? Drive squad cars? No way. They are Foot Soldiers Only, and their sole mission is to bring law and order to a deeply mistrustful black community–the city neighborhoods known as Darktown. Imagine the messy, dangerous complications that ensue when two black officers stumble across the murder of a pretty young black woman and decide to investigate the prime suspect–a white ex-cop seen slapping her around before she disappeared.
Not that it should matter, but Mullen, the author, is white. And lives in Atlanta. He gives the novel depth and balance through his four main characters. Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are the black police officers who dare to investigate the crime. Denny Rakestraw and Lionel Dunlow are the two white officers caught in the middle. All four are conflicted for different reasons. Not one of them is a saint (although one of them is vying to be the devil) but that, in large part, is due to the times.
Today, of course, black and white police officers work together under the same roof. Segregated housing is no longer legal, although segregated neighborhoods still exist–mainly due to economic reasons. It’s been 150 years since the end of slavery and fifty-two years since the Civil Rights Amendment passed, but we still have a Race Issue. Our role models and success stories come in all colors, but there is still mistrust on both sides of the color divide. If one of the reasons we study history is to learn from past mistakes and to see how some of these mistakes follow us into the future, then there’s good reason to read Darktown.