Saturday, October 1, 2016

Against Overwhelming Odds, Two of Atlanta's First Black Policemen Attempt to Solve a Murder

Darktown is an excellent book that works at many levels. At heart, it's a crime novel, but beyond that, it has a great deal to say about the time and place in which the story plays out.

Set in Atlanta shortly after World War II, the book opens just after the city government has forced the police department to hire its first eight black officers. But their professional lives are closely circumscribed. Their precinct "headquarters" is in the Negro Y.M.C.A., and they are not allowed to come into the "real" police station. They may only wear their uniforms when they are on patrol and may not even wear them to and from work. They are not allowed to investigate crimes, but must refer the crimes they discover to white detectives who will follow up if and when they feel like it.

As one might expect, particularly in 1948, there's a great deal of resentment directed against these officers from the white community in general and from white police officers in particular, and this plays out in incidents large and small on a daily basis. But even many members of the African-American community are not sure what to think of these eight men. Some are proud to see black men on the force, but others resent the fact that these eight officers are assigned to patrol black neighborhoods and that they are arresting other black people for the crimes they have committed. Some fear that these new black police officers are little better than the white officers who have been harassing them for years.

Two of the new officers are Lucius Boggs, a veteran of the war, and Tommy Smith. On patrol one night, they stop a white man who has driven into "Darktown" and crashed his car into a light pole. In the car with the man is an attractive young black woman who appears to have been beaten up. But when Boggs and Smith attempt to detain the man for white detectives, he simply laughs at them and drives off. Shortly thereafter, the young woman who had been with him turns up dead.

White detectives have little interest in pursuing the case, and so Boggs and Smith decide to do so themselves. But they are severely hamstrung in that they are not authorized to make such an investigation and if they are discovered doing so, they may be fired or worse. Their particular nemesis is a racist white detective named Dunlow, a veteran cop with a long record of brutality, particularly against blacks. Dunlow has a young new partner named Rakestraw, and it remains to be seen whether Rakestraw will follow in Dunlow's footsteps or whether he might be open to newer and more progressive ideas.

This is a beautifully written book with a strong sense of history. The Atlanta P.D. was forced to hire its first eight black officers in 1948, and their mission was circumscribed almost exactly as Mullen describes it here. The story is gripping and the characters, good, bad and in between, are very well developed. The setting is excellent and one can only marvel at the determination of Boggs and Smith to persist in their investigation and in their larger and more important mission of blazing a trail for the black policeman who would follow them. A strong 4.5 stars.

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