Sunday, November 20, 2016

Darktown by Thomas Mullen

Darktown is an interesting look back on a troubling time in America. Set in post WWII Atlanta, it focuses on two of the eight rookie black cops who were hired. While on patrol, they stumble onto a drunk middle aged white man in a car with a young black woman. The man turns out to be former Atlanta PD and the woman turns up murdered a couple of days later. What follows is both a mystery and an historical commentary on a particularly difficult time.

The mystery holds few surprises. The police department is more interested in finding someone to accuse of the murder than solving it. The young black cops, Boggs and Smith, pursue it even though they lack the authority to conduct investigations. They are eventually assisted by a young white officer, Rakestraw, who is partnered with a racist cop, Dunlow. Rakestraw is interested in justice, but he is not exactly a crusader for racial equality.

While the mystery is fairly standard, the historical look at Atlanta is a little more interesting. The progress made in even hiring black officers is clouded by political motives and racism that is both deeply entrenched and institutionalized. The actions described in the book are horrific both to read, or in the case of the audiobook, listen to. The story may have been a little more successful with characters that were a little more sympathetic or less stereotypical. Nevertheless, the pressure that was in place both within and outside of the black community on the success of the experiment of hiring black officers kept the stakes high. Even the day to day obstacles both to doing their jobs and living their lives was illuminating.

The mystery is eventually solved, and justice of a sort is dispensed. What was lacking, was any sort of indication of what a path forward might be. A deeply racist south was portrayed, but there was no real sign that there was a way for anything to really change. The hiring of black officers in and of itself was portrayed more as a political expediency than as a step towards progress.

The audiobook was narrated by Andre Holland who did an outstanding job with the characters. Holland made you feel like you were in 1948 Atlanta and effectively conveyed the frustration, anger and weariness of the characters. The pace was steady and the mood tense.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this audiobook.

Description:  In the tradition of our most acclaimed suspense writers, the author of The Last Town on Earth delivers a riveting and elegant police procedural set in Atlanta, a ripped-from-the-headlines depiction of a world on the cusp of great change involving race relations, city politics, and police corruption.

Responding to pressure from on high, the Atlanta police department is forced to hire its first black officers. It’s a victory of sorts, though the newly minted policemen are met with deep hostility by their white peers and their authority is limited: They can’t arrest a suspect unless a white officer is present; they can’t drive a squad car; they can’t even enter the station through the front door.

When a black woman who was last seen in a car driven by a white man with connections to the APD turns up fatally beaten, no one seems to care except for Lucius and Boggs, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds, who risk their jobs, the trust the community has put in them, and even their own safety to investigate her death. When their efforts stall they have to work alongside fellow officers who include the old-school cop, Dunlow, and his partner, Rakestraw, a young progressive who may or may not be willing to make allies across color lines.

Set in the post-war, pre-civil rights South, and evoking the socially resonant and morally complex crime novels of Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Walter Mosley, Darktown is a vivid, smart, intricately plotted crime saga that explores the issues of race, law enforcement, and the uneven scales of justice.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Dry by Jane Harper

I take author blurbs on book covers with a grain of salt but after reading The Dry by Jane Harper, I have to say that quotes like “every word is near perfect” (David Baldacci) and “If this book doesn’t garner an Edgar (Best First Novel) or two (Best Novel), there is no justice.” (John Lescroart) are both absolutely on point. This book is one of the best books I’ve read all year and maybe the best first novel I’ve ever read.

Set deep in rural Australia in the middle of a killing drought, Harper sets the mood and the tone from the opening sentence. Driven out of town after being accused of murder 20 years earlier, federal agent Aaron Falk is summoned to rural Kiewarra after a fresh tragedy claims the life of his childhood friend Luke Hadler, his wife and their small boy. Harper underscores the horror of the crime not by lingering over the details, but by presenting them in their stark and tragic simplicity. You feel the weight of the tragedy hang over a town already teetering on the brink due to prolonged drought and harsh conditions.

Harper’s characters are a match for her pitch-perfect setting. People burdened by their own pasts where grudges are nursed for decades and secrets are more plentiful than water. The wide open vistas and isolation inhabit you as you are reading as much as they inhabit the characters who live there.

Hadler’s father insures that Falk comes back by letting him know that he knows Falk and his son both lied about events surrounding the death of a classmate 20 years earlier. Falk agrees to help look into the murder of the Hadlers even in the face of antagonism and suspicion that still clings to him.

Falk finds that old grudges die hard. He and the local police office, Sergeant Raco, discover that not everything about the murder/suicide adds up. Digging deeper results in tearing the band aid off of old wounds as well as creating new ones.

The story moves forward at a steady clip as the investigation doggedly continues. Whether there is a connection between the tragedies set 20 years apart is an open question that flashbacks to the past continue to illuminate. It all builds to an ending that is as crushing as it is exhilarating. Much like Falk and Raco, you are never sure of your conclusions until the very end. Even when you see the ending unfolding, the tragedy comes crashing down over your head again like a tidal wave.

Simply put, everything about this novel works. Unique setting, ingenious plot device and rock-solid characters. I’m going to be shoving this book into the hands of all my friends as well as most strangers that don’t already have a book in their hands. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s going to be one of the best books of 2017 period. It’s hard not to gush about this book, and after you read it, you’ll know why. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Pre-order it now, read it when it comes out, and then read it again the minute you finish. You won’t regret it.

Description:  After getting a note demanding his presence, Federal Agent Aaron Falk arrives in his hometown for the first time in decades to attend the funeral of his best friend, Luke. Twenty years ago when Falk was accused of murder, Luke was his alibi. Falk and his father fled under a cloud of suspicion, saved from prosecution only because of Luke’s steadfast claim that the boys had been together at the time of the crime. But now more than one person knows they didn’t tell the truth back then, and Luke is dead.

Amid the worst drought in a century, Falk and the local detective question what really happened to Luke. As Falk reluctantly investigates to see if there’s more to Luke’s death than there seems to be, long-buried mysteries resurface, as do the lies that have haunted them. And Falk will find that small towns have always hidden big secrets.