37INK/ATRIA Books, $26.00, 371 pages, ISBN 978-1-5011-3386-2
Only a few authors have the ability to educate, entertain and thrill their audiences, all at the same time. It’s a gift; and a rare talent practiced by luminaries like Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley and Philip Kerr; each of whom have a unique, and special skill that allows them to make history come alive in the pages of their novels. The genre is known as historical fiction, and this week, the MBR would like to add the name Thomas Mullen to the list of those gifted few. He’s managed to put together a work that shines light on a neglected area of twentieth-century history, while at the same time wrapping it up in an excellent, fast-paced and exciting murder mystery. It has to do with race and racial tension in the Jim Crow era of the American south.
Darktown, by Thomas Mullen is his fourth novel. It takes place in Atlanta, Georgia in the year 1948 . . . just after World War II . . . and just before the Civil Rights Movement begins. It was at or near the height of the Jim Crow era—when African-Americans were segregated by race, not allowed to vote, and were confined to second-class housing, schools and general living conditions in a system that was second only to South African apartheid in viciousness. It was virtually unchanged since the Reconstruction Era after the war for Southern Independence, or as the Yankees would have it . . . the Civil War. But the times, as the song goes, they were a changin’.
In 1948, President Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces. In Atlanta, the city leaders decreed that the police department had to hire at least eight black police officers. The black officers weren’t allowed into the main police station, were forced to work out of the basement of the negro-only YMCA, couldn’t drive city-owned police cars, or arrest white citizens. Their job was to walk designated patrol areas in the black neighborhoods and maintain order among their own kind. One of the eight newly-minted black officers is Tommy Smith, a WWII combat veteran with a keen temper, a pair of iron fists and the will to use them. He’s paired with Lucius Bebee. He’s the son of a prominent local minister, college graduate and an army veteran—although without combat experience, much to his chagrin. The white cops are outwardly hostile, they’re rumored to have a betting pool going, gambling on the elapsed time before one of them shoots a black cop. The entire police force seethes with resentment, distrust and open hatred. When a beautiful young negro woman . . . last seen in a car with a white man turns up murdered . . . Smith and Bebee take it upon themselves to investigate. They’re forbidden to act as detectives, but the white investigators refuse to spend time on a black murder. So the pair risk their jobs, and possibly their lives, in the pursuit of justice for a nameless woman. What follows is an intense, sophisticated and complex plot that races to a stunning conclusion. The novel will leave readers marveling at the great social distance we’ve come in the intervening years, but also serve as a reminder of just how far we still have to go to achieve racial harmony. Darktown is atmospheric southern writing at its absolute best. It’s thought provoking, as well as entertaining . . . and marks the debut of an exceptional new talent!