Thursday, 15 September 2016

Darktown

Author: Thomas Mullen
Genre: Historical Fiction (Civil Rights)
Type: Paperback
Pages: 371
Source: Simon and Schuster Canada
Publisher: Atria Books
First Published: September 13, 2016
First Line: "It was nearing midnight when one of the new lampposts on Auburn Avenue achieved the unfortunate fate of being the first to be hit by a car."

Book Description from GoodReadsResponding from pressure on high, the Atlanta police department is forced to hire its first black officers in 1948. The newly minted policemen are met with deep hostility by their white peers and their authority is limited: They can’t arrest white suspects; they can’t drive a squad car; they can’t even use the police headquarters and must instead operate out of the basement of a gym.

When a black woman who was last seen in a car driven by a white man turns up fatally beaten, no one seems to care except for Boggs and Smith, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Pressured from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust the community has put in them, and even their own safety to investigate her death. Their efforts bring them up against an old-school cop, Dunlow, who has long run the neighborhood like his own, and Dunlow’s young partner, Rakestraw, a young progressive who may or may not be willing to make allies across color lines.
 


My Rating: 5/5 stars

My Review: This fictionalized story is based around the first Black officers on the Atlanta police force in the late 1940's.  Mullen weaves a crime thriller around these officers and this tumultuous time which was rife with racial tension and blatant bigotry.

I was immediately impressed with the strength of Mullen's writing, the scope of the book and how well he incorporated the main characters and their lives into the plot. He peels away the societal layers of Atlanta in 1948 and brings his readers into the lives of a few officers, both Black and White, and how their views and beliefs affect their work and home life.

What readers will immediately notice is that corruption of power is rampant among the White police officers. They set up innocent Black people for crimes, rape, kill and abuse the people they've sworn to protect with impunity and it's gut-wrenching and infuriating to witness. Many of these officers would do anything to put an end to the Black unit which they feel was foisted upon them.  After the murder of a young Black woman the lives of three police officers become entwined as they try to figure out what happened even as some people continually put obstacles in their way.   

In contrast, the eight Black officers feel a deep sense of commitment to their community but have been given little to no authority. They cannot drive a squad car, cannot make arrests on their own, cannot wear their uniform unless on their shift or even walk into the police headquarters due to the colour of their skin.  Instead their precinct is relegated to the basement of the YMCA in Darktown, a name give to the Black neighbourhood in Atlanta by the White populace. Like the rest of the Black population, they are degraded daily, always seen as less than and face open hostility and blatant bigotry.  

Candid descriptions are given of the racism that was commonplace and so ingrained in much of the White population.  It was often hard to read and I admit to feeling quite uncomfortable with the regular use of the "N" word.  But I appreciate that Mullen didn't hold anything back and exposed what life was like back then.  Mullen's description is so vivid of that time that readers can feel the stifling heat of Georgia, the societal tensions and hear the vitriolic epithets spewed regularly at the Black officers and citizens.  It was a harsh and brutal time which was rife with ignorance.  It was distressing to read these words and feel the hate and ignorance behind them ... and it should be.

While I'd consider this a slow burn kind of read it is also quite compelling and I was utterly fascinated by it.  It kept me on the edge of my seat, made me sad that people had to live in constant fear due to the pigment of their skin and very angry to witness how one human being can treat another due to their own issues with ignorance and bigotry. 

This is a page-turner crime drama in a city clearly divided by race.  It was filled with suspense and injustice as readers witness basic human rights being denied to some and even outright hostility.  While these issues happened in post-WWII Georgia, sadly it appears from what we seen in the current news, that some of the issues raised are still relevant today.

Note: This book has already been optioned as a TV drama with Jamie Foxx as executive producer.

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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