Writing about the racial past for a modern audience is fraught with challenges, especially when the writing is fiction and the subject matter remains deeply present. Even an informed and gifted writer such as Thomas Mullen risks a kind of political correctness, imbuing white heroes with redeeming innocence, ensuring that white villains get the appropriate dose of what’s coming to them and overdoing violence against blacks to inspire our sympathies.
Writing about race in a crime novel involving police brutality in 1948 Georgia, as Mullen does in “Darktown,” confronts the additional challenge of salting wounds freshly made with the killings of today’s black men by today’s police. With movingly depicted scenes and solid character development, “Darktown” meets this challenge admirably.
However, as readers, we face a different challenge: What brings us to endure the horrid destruction of so much black flesh by people clothed in white authority? Virulent racism moves this mystery along. As the novel opens in postwar Atlanta, the mayor has just introduced the city’s first eight black police officers. White supremacists who happen to be police officers are deeply committed to committing injustice.
Patrolling one of the city’s segregated black neighborhoods, Boggs and Smith, two of the new black cops, encounter a young black woman and a white male driver shortly before she is killed. The black policemen are almost as powerless to investigate her death as they are hated by their white male colleagues. A parallel white police partnership, Rake and Dunlow, wind up pursuing the case as well — often for different reasons. The black Boggs and the white Rake represent the conscience of a future that hasn’t happened yet. Not quite post-racial, they are nonetheless good, enlightened, earnest, educated and, above all else, professional in an often unprofessional line of work. Their respective partners, Smith and Dunlow, are more one dimensional, the latter being the racist villain whose thoughts and words appear like ominous theme music.
The murder web is tangled, extending throughout Atlanta society, the police department and beyond the city’s boundaries. The chapters alternate like segregated streets — black cops, then white cops. Reminiscent of Walter Mosely (without Mosely’s ear for black dialogue), racial lives are never as separate as they appear.
As a reader, you certainly want to learn whodunit. Mullen is a wonderful architect of intersecting plotlines and unexpected answers. But you also want justice, which you know neither Mullen nor our own time can provide. This is an author who cares about history and how it is being lived by his characters. He no doubt is aware of a famous police brutality case in another part of Georgia that took place just a few years before the events of “Darktown.” In Newton, Sheriff Claude Screws, a virulent racist, lynched a black man, Bobby Hall, for the crime of owning a gun and hiring a lawyer to retrieve it when Screws arbitrarily took it away. The murder was shockingly brutal. In the first case of police brutality, the Justice Department prosecuted Screws and won conviction from a local jury but lost after an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. This is a hard racial history to write, especially as fiction (admission: I have tried). Not only did the laws fail to bring justice, but Screws went on to win election to the state legislature. In contrast to this true story of injustice — eerily familiar today — “Darktown” offers an improbable tale of revenge.
What real-life tragedies such as Hall’s suggest and novels such as “Darktown” rely on for narrative suspense is the daily terror visited upon black people by whites in the Jim Crow South. The “crimes” of looking a white man in the eye, glancing at a white woman or owning property too close to that of whites could get you killed, beaten senseless or simply ripped off — by the state, no less. Compelling works of fiction such as Mullen’s walk a fine line between art that reminds us of horrors past and art that trades on them with pieces too unfinished to play with. Those who find his novel excessive will have a point — not because Mullen callously exploits this tragedy, but because we are still living it. Revenge is rarely a real-life option, and justice seems too unreal to conjure.
David D. Troutt is the author of “The Importance of Being Dangerous” and a professor of law at Rutgers Law School-Newark.
By Thomas Mullen
Atria. 384 pp. $26