A historical time so far and yet so close to ours. And a great yarn.

Darktown: A Novel - Thomas Mullen

Thanks to Net Galley and to Little, Brown Book UK for offering me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This novel combines an intriguing plot (a police-procedural thriller about an African-American young woman murdered in mysterious circumstances that many want to cover up) with a tense and little explored historical background, post-WWII Atlanta, a place where racial tensions were alive and well. The story takes place shortly after the first African-American men have taken their posts as police officers. The Atlanta of the time is a segregated city, with white and black neighbourhoods, and where the poorest and most criminal area is known as ‘Darktown’. Nobody wants to police it, but the business is booming.

The new members of the police force have a badge and a gun, but can only police the African-American neighbourhoods, cannot enter the police station, are bullied by the white police agents, command no respect, have access to no resources and are stabbed in the back at the slightest opportunity.

The story is told in the third person from several points of views. Most of the story is told in alternating chapters from two of the police officers’ points of views: Rake, a white rookie whose partner is a racist and corrupt police officer who uses force, threats and intimidation to control criminals and peers alike, and Boggs, an African-American policeman, the son of a preacher who is one of the influencers of the well-off African-American community in Atlanta. Rake tries to be a good and ethical policeman but finds it difficult to confront the status quo, and although he tolerates the African-American policemen, he is not pro-equality. For him, the best case scenario is that they keep out of each other’s way. Boggs knows they are only there as a political gesture and any excuse will be good to get rid of them, but he takes a stand and decides to investigate the death of the young African-American woman white detectives don’t care about, no matter what the consequences. There are also brief chapters told from other characters’ points of view, but this is always relevant to the story and I did not find it confusing.

The plot is complex, with several murders, police corruption, false clues, and the added difficulties of the partial sources of information and the obstacles that Rake and Boggs find at every turn. There are many characters that appear only briefly and it is important to be attentive to the story not to miss anything, and towards the end, the author cleverly keeps some of the clues under wraps (you  might have your suspicions but it’s not easy to guess the whole story and wrap it all up).

The action of the novel is kept at good pace,the writing has enough description to make us feel as we were sweating with the characters (and we can almost feel the violence in our own bodies), without ever being overdrawn, and there are quite a few chapters that end in a cliffhanger and makes us keep turning the pages. There is also a well accomplished underlying sense of threat and darkness running through the whole story and it’s impossible to read it and not to think on how much (and also how little) some things have changed.

The main characters have doubts, weaknesses and don’t always do the honourable or “right” thing but that makes them easier to relate to, although not always likeable. I missed having more of a sense of their personal lives (Rake is married but we know next to nothing about his family and although Boggs lives with his family, most of the focus is on the job) but that fits in nicely with the genre. Apart from an African-American Madam, the victim, and a woman who helps divulge some useful information, women don’t have much of a role in the story as seems to correspond to the period. Some of the secondary characters are odious whilst others are all too human, and at times become casualties in a war they never enrolled in.

A well-written story, with a complex plot, set in a relatively recent and turbulent historical period that will make you think about race, discrimination, and progress.