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.

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