“Darktown: a Novel” (Atria/37Ink), by Thomas Mullen
Atlanta during the post-World War II years was a city on the cusp of change: “Neither city nor country but some odd combination” writes Thomas Mullen as he sets the scene in his gripping novel “Darktown,” which succinctly, and often uncomfortably, explores racism.
The mayor’s order to integrate Atlanta’s police force in 1948 doesn’t sit well with the old-guard that’s male — and white. Eight new black officers are allowed to wear the uniform but cannot make an arrest unless a white officer is present.
“Darktown” also is a complicated crime fiction that melds an intense plot with fully realized characters. At times, Mullen’s unflinching description in exploring the bigotry and hatred the rookie officers experience make “Darktown” an upsetting read. Yet this authenticity adds to the realism and relevance of “Darktown,” bringing to mind 2016 confrontations between police and blacks.
War veterans Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, along with their six colleagues, joined the Atlanta force because it offered the best jobs. After three months on the force, Boggs and Smith come across Brian Underhill, a drunken white ex-cop who has just crashed into a lamppost with his passenger, Lily Ellsworth, a young black woman. The white policemen who arrive on the scene allow Underhill to leave without charging him. But a few days later, Lily is found murdered.
“Darktown” briskly moves as the plot delves into racial tensions and WWII veterans returning to civilian jobs. Although set a couple of decades before the civil-rights movement, “Darktown” is a harbinger of how attitudes and opportunities will be changing.