Book Review : Thomas Mullen - Darktown (2016)
Thomas Mullen's award winning mid-century cop novel Darktown has been one of the most requested reviews since I've started taking audience suggestion in 2017. It was requested via social media, email and even by a strange man on the street once. Few novels that I never previously heard of came in so warmly recommended. So much, I was initially dubious. I get lots of recommendations for books and most time people can't tell my why they liked them. And white guys writing novels on racism are usually a red flag. Not here. Darktown is one of the best books I've read in 2017, so far.
Darktown follows two teams of Atlanta patrol cops in pre-civil rights America: Lionel Dunlow and Dennis Rakestraw, who are white and Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, who are black. This is important because black cops were new on the force back then and didn't have the authority to arrest people. Boggs and Smith call-in Dunlow and Rakestraw to arrest a drunken man who smashed his car into a lamppost one night, but the veteran cop Dunlow lets him leave with a warning. When the female passenger in his car is found dead a couple days later, Boggs and Smith decide to lead their own investigation about what happened. The young and idealistic Rakestraw decides to do the same on his own and both sides will gradually lift the veil on some of Atlanta's freakiest secrets.
So, Darktown is a novel on racism written by white guy. These usually don't go down well. They usually portray black people as helpless victims of the system saved by an enlightened white man or depict a unilateral conflict where every white person is a budding KKK member. This is not the case here. Thomas Mullen wrote MANY characters on both sides of the issue and painstakingly developed them all. Rakestraw is a young an educated white guy, Dunlow is an older and uneducated one clinging on the power of his position, McInnis is just a blue collar guy doing his best, Boggs is an educated black guy, Otis Ellsworth isn't, Chandler Poe's an asshole, you see my point. Sure, everything is segregated and defined by racism in Darktown, but it's a reflection of its time. Thomas Mullen doesn't try to solve racism or position him as a savior in his novel. He's just writing a nuanced, layered and compelling portrait of pre-civil rights era racism using period logic and vernacular.
Darktown is also successful because it features a conventional mystery with legs of its own. There's a murder case to crack, a slew of suspicious people, predictable misdirection that could feature in a Law & Order: SVU episode and riveting, killer dialogue that will keep you glued to scenes you've read a hundred times before. And maybe a hundred page before Darktown ends, it takes a wild left turn towards Conspiracy Theory County and forces you to redefine everything. And it's a LOT of fun, like riding a flaming unicycle off a rooftop while shotgunning a beer. The obvious comparison I could give you for Thomas Mullen is the legend himself, James Ellroy. Mullen might not have Ellroy's cras sense of humor, but there is a delightful paranoid edge to Darktown, which quickly overtakes the reader once things start hitting the fan. Thomas Mullen is no joke. That guy can seriously write.
I have a wicked good time with Darktown and it's now my turn to recommend it to you. Please, do yourself a favor and bring this book wherever you're going this summer. It's a smart, readable and deceptively unpredictable novel that will set your mind ablaze. Thomas Mullen is a talent. Darktown was released at a strange time for identity politics, but it works out because it has an operating paradigm of its own. It's not trying to wedge itself in the present day argument. I've thoroughly enjoy it. I hope you will carve some time to read it this summer and expect a review of the sequel Lightning Men, shortly before its September 12 publication day. One of the nice surprises of my reading year.