Darktown is an unusual detective story set in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1948. It tells the story of the first group of black policemen appointed to patrol that city, and explores the social and political issues related to this step towards racial equality. The book was recommended to me by a friend of a friend, and I suppose what really attracted me was its obvious connection with the Black Lives Matter campaign.
The novel opens with two black policemen patrolling their neighbourhood. They come across a minor street accident involving Underhill, a white driver with a black female passenger. Their own power to arrest is limited and so they call in white officers for support. One of these white policemen laughingly condones the behaviour of Underhill, but his partner, a younger man named Rakestraw, is shocked. Later the black girl is found shot in the heart. Boggs, the black officer and son of a local preacher, makes a report only to find that the name of the white man has been removed by other officers.
As the novel develops, and the Atlanta police force ignore the death of this black woman, both Rakestraw and Boggs become determined to right the wrong and to discover the truth about her life and death. Their investigations lead them across the city of Atlanta and into the countryside beyond. Doors that are shut to Boggs open to Rakestraw and vice versa, so we gain an insight the whole of that southern society.
This is a story of corruption and racism. We learn about the histories of the different characters, gaining insights into life in the southern states. We learn of their memories of the lynchings and violent racism, memories of cowering in dark houses whilst the streets are full of white men rioting and lynching. We visit brothels in black neighbourhoods and the homes of more privileged black ministers and leaders of society. We meet police who are corrupt and greedy, and others who have been cowed by the system or turn a blind eye to the corruption of their fellow officers. We go into the countryside where the lives of black people are even more constrained than in the city. There are corrupt white politicians, there is scandal and hypocrisy. On the surface all may seem well, but there are really few heroes in this book.
Mullen tells the story mostly in a sequence of alternating chapters in which we see events from first Boggs’ and then Rakestraw’s viewpoint. This has the effect of creating some tension as the narrative switches from one character to the other, but I found it a bit frustrating actually. The book is full of detail, and contains lots of violence, all of which is described realistically and convincingly, but it does tend to drag a bit in places – so much attention to detail in such a dark and unforgiving environment made the whole thing quite a depressing read. There are no heroes, no conventional happy endings, no sense of redemption for reader or character. It’s a grim read.