“Fine Southern storytelling meets hard-boiled crime in a tale that connects an overlooked chapter of history to our own continuing struggles with race today.” —Charles Frazier, bestselling author of Cold Mountain
“This page-turner reads like the best of James Ellroy.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“In the way the story is told coupled with its heightened racial context, Darktown reminded me of Walter Mosley or a George Pelecanos novel.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“High-quality...crime fiction with a nimble sense of history...quick on its feet and vividly drawn.” —Dallas Morning News
“Some books educate, some books entertain, Thomas Mullen’s Darktown is the rare book that does both.” —Huffington Post
Award-winning author Thomas Mullen is a “wonderful architect of intersecting plotlines and unexpected answers”(The Washington Post) in this timely and provocative mystery and brilliant exploration of race, law enforcement, and justice in 1940s Atlanta.
Responding to orders from on high, the Atlanta Police Department is forced to hire its first black officers, including war veterans Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith. The newly minted policemen are met with deep hostility by their white peers; they aren’t allowed to arrest white suspects, drive squad cars, or set foot in the police headquarters.
When a woman who was last seen in a car driven by a white man turns up dead, Boggs and Smith suspect white cops are behind it. Their investigation sets them up against a brutal cop, Dunlow, who has long run the neighborhood as his own, and his partner, Rakestraw, a young progressive who may or may not be willing to make allies across color lines. Among shady moonshiners, duplicitous madams, crooked lawmen, and the constant restrictions of Jim Crow, Boggs and Smith will risk their new jobs, and their lives, while navigating a dangerous world—a world on the cusp of great change.
A vivid, smart, intricately plotted crime saga that explores the timely issues of race, law enforcement, and the uneven scales of justice.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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. Shards of a white Buick’s headlight fell scattered across the sidewalk below the now-leaning pole.
Locusts continued their thrum in the thick July air. Windows were open throughout town, the impact no doubt waking many. The lone pedestrian on that block, an old man on his way home from sweeping floors at a sugar factory, was no more than ten yards away. He had stepped back when the car jumped the curb but now he stopped and watched for a moment, in case the pole should come crashing the rest of the way down. It didn’t. At least not yet.
The Buick reversed, slowly, the front wheel easing off the curb. The movement caused the pole to lean the other way, too far, and then back again, a giant metronome.
The pedestrian could hear a woman’s voice, shouting. Something about what on earth do you think you’re doing, just take me home, that sort of thing. The pedestrian shook his head and shambled off before something worse might happen.
Whether or not the lampposts were new, exactly, was a matter of perspective. It had been a few months now, but considering how many years it had taken the leaders of Atlanta’s colored community to convince the mayor to install them, and considering the many, many years in which Negroes had walked down even their busiest and most monied street in darkness, the celestial presence of those lampposts still felt new.
None of which was known to the Buick’s driver.
He had been attempting to turn around in the middle of the otherwise empty street but had misjudged his turning radius, or the width of the road, or general physics. He also perhaps hadn’t noticed that two blocks away were two Atlanta police officers.
Five minutes earlier, Officer Lucius Boggs finally confronted his partner, Tommy Smith, about his limp.
“You did not hurt yourself playing baseball. Own up.”
“It was a hard slide,” Smith said.
“But you told McInnis you were rounding third.”
At roll call, Smith had assured their sergeant, McInnis, that his knee was fine, just a tweak he’d felt in a game he’d played with some buddies. You know how those sand lots are, sir, no traction. McInnis had listened to this stone-faced, as if experienced enough at hearing colored flimflam but deciding the truth of this matter was not worth prodding into.
“I fell out a window,” Smith now admitted to Boggs. They were standing on Hilliard Street, three blocks from the Negro YMCA whose basement served as their makeshift precinct. At that hour the sun was long gone but it had left more than enough heat to last until it felt like showing up again. Both officers had sweated through their undershirts, and even their uniforms were damp.
“What do you think?”
Boggs folded his arms and couldn’t help smiling. “And who was the lady you were impressing with your acrobatics?”
“I was in the middle of entertaining her with my acrobatics, matter of fact. When her man busted into the apartment.”
“Are you crazy?”
“She’d told me he’d left her, pulled up stakes for Detroit. She talked about needing some lawyer to do her divorce papers or something.”
Atlanta police officers were ordered to abide by a strict moral code—no drinking, even at home, and no womanizing—but that had not entirely sunk in with Tommy Smith. The Negro officers dutifully avoided alcohol, as they knew all too well that a witness could report them and get them suspended, but for Smith the idea of suddenly becoming a chaste man was altogether too much.
“You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“I do not go after the married ones.”
“Except for her, and the girl who did that thing with the candied pecans, and—”
“That’s different, she and I went way back.”
They started walking again.
“So then what happened?”
“What do you think? Pulled on my britches and jumped out the window.”
“What floor did she live on?”
“One of them places with no fire escape. I’d say I’m walking remarkably well, considering.”
“What happened with the husband?”
“I did not linger around to eavesdrop.”
“Aren’t you at least worried?”
“She struck me as the kind of gal knew how to handle herself and think on her feet.”
Boggs was the son of a minister, and though he had chosen not to follow in his father’s footsteps, the idea of tomcatting across town the way his partner did was utterly foreign to him. His own experience with women had been limited to innocent dates with well-mannered, well-raised young ladies of the Negro intelligentsia, and he was coming off a recent broken engagement to a girl who’d finally told him that the stress of knowing her fiancé might be shot or beaten on any given night was too much for her constitution to handle.
A squad car approached, the headlights strangely off. Hilliard had neither lampposts nor sidewalks. They stopped talking and stood there, each wondering if they should back up a few steps, or would that look weak.
Then the car accelerated, and each of them did indeed take a step back onto the small plot of grass and weeds that served as someone’s front yard. The squad car feinted toward them, swerving a bit, then screeched to a stop.
They caught glimpses of two white officers whose faces they didn’t recognize—cops from other beats who just happened to be driving through, apparently.
The white cops yelled, “Oooh-oooh-oooh!”
Monkey sounds and orangutan sounds and maybe some gorilla thrown in.
“Watch your asses, niggers!”
Then the squad car sped off, the white cops laughing hysterically.
You couldn’t show fear. They acted like it was all a harmless prank, even when they gunned their engines at you when you were crossing the street, even when they nearly grazed against you. More than once Boggs had stood in the road to flag down a squad car, needing assistance for an arrest, when the car had accelerated toward him until he’d had to leap out of the way. Laughter in its wake. Surely, if the day came when they actually did run over one of the colored officers, they would insist it was an accident.
Neither Boggs nor Smith felt like telling stories anymore as they reached the corner of Auburn, the night silent but for the almost mechanical churn of locusts and the call-and-response of crickets. The marquee over Bailey’s Royal Theater was off, as were the lights of the jeweler and tailoring shops; someone had left on a third-floor office lamp at Atlanta Life Insurance Company, but other than that and the streetlights, all was dark. Then they heard the crash.
They turned, each half-hoping to see that the squad car had hit a fire hydrant or perhaps a brick wall. Instead they saw a white Buick two blocks away, on the curb, and the light pole dancing almost, or at least swaying drunkenly. They watched as the light flickered once, then again, just as each of their homes’ electricity did during thunderstorms.
The Buick backed up. They couldn’t read the tags from so far away. Then it started driving toward them.
They had been police officers for just under three months now, walking the beats around Auburn Avenue (the neighborhood where both had lived all their lives save the war years) and the West Side, on the other side of downtown. Although Atlanta’s eight Negro officers had not yet been entrusted with squad cars, they did have uniforms: black caps with the gold city crest, dark blue shirts on which their shiny badges were pinned, black slacks, and black ties (Smith being one of two cops on the team who went with the bow-tie option, which he found rather dapper). Their thick belts were weighed down by a heavy arsenal of weapons and gear, including firearms, which terrified a number of white people in Atlanta and beyond.
Boggs stepped into the road and held out a palm. The white cops may have enjoyed trying to run over their colored colleagues, but civilians were another matter. Or so he hoped. The Buick was driving slower than was normal, as if ashamed. Its headlights glinted off his badge.
The Buick stopped.
“He’s not turning his engine off,” Smith said after a few seconds.
Boggs walked over to the driver’s door, Smith mirroring him along the sidewalk and stopping at the passenger door. The soles of Smith’s shoes hardly made a sound because the cement had been meticulously swept by someone that very morning, not a twig or cigarette butt in sight.
The glare from the streetlights had prevented the officers from getting a good look in the car until now. All they had been able to discern were silhouettes of a driver with a hat and a passenger without.
Boggs opened his mouth and was about to ask for the driver’s license and registration when he saw that the driver was white.
That he hadn’t expected. What he had suspected, that the driver was drunk, was correct. Boggs was bathed in alcohol fumes as the portly white man gazed at him with something between annoyance and contempt.
“May I have your license and registration, please, sir?”
White people were not often found in Sweet Auburn, the wealthiest Negro neighborhood in Atlanta—possibly in the world, boosters liked to say. Adventurous whites looking for gambling or whores in the darker parts of town would normally troll along Decatur Street, by the railroad tracks, a half mile to the south. Or they’d find one of the other, more nefarious areas that the colored officers patrolled. This fellow was either lost or so drunk and stupid that he figured any colored part of town offered the vices he craved, when in fact this neighborhood mostly held churches, real estate firms, banks, insurance companies, funeral parlors, barbershops, and the sorts of restaurants long closed at this hour. A couple of nightclubs did grace the streets, yes, but they were respectable places where respectable Negroes gathered, and they only opened their doors to whites on Saturdays, when Negroes weren’t allowed in.
The driver’s gray homburg was tipped high, as if he’d been rubbing sweat from his forehead. Which he needed to be doing more of, because his skin was still shiny. Hair light gray, blue tie loosened, linen jacket wrinkled. He seemed sweatier than a man driving a car should be, Boggs thought. Like he’d just been doing something strenuous.
On the other side of the car, Smith visually frisked the man’s passenger. She wore the kind of yellow sundress that always made him so thrilled when spring came along, and even here in the depths of summer he was not a man to complain about the kind of heat that allowed the women of Atlanta to walk around half naked. She was short enough to cross her legs in the front seat, the hem above her knee. Light glinted off a small locket that looked stuck to the dampness at the small of her throat.
She made eye contact with Smith for only the briefest of seconds, just enough for him to gather a few facts. She was light-skinned and young, early twenties at most. The right side of her lip looked a shade of red that didn’t match her lipstick. Red and slightly puffy.
Although Smith could not yet see the driver, he divined the man’s race based on the subtle change in Boggs’s voice when asking for the license. Not exactly deferential, but more polite than was otherwise warranted.
The driver answered, “No, you may not.”
Boggs was cognizant of the fact that the man’s right hand was at his side, on the seat, and therefore out of view. Boggs decided he need not comment on this yet. Hopefully Smith could see it. The man’s left hand casually rested on the steering wheel, the engine still running.
“You hit a light pole, sir.”
“I mighta glanced against it.” Not even looking at Boggs.
“It’s leaning over and will need to be fixed, and—”
“You’re wasting my time, boy.”
Nothing but a crescendo of katydids for a moment, and only then did the white man deign to look at Boggs. Just to check out how that had registered on this uppity Negro’s face.
Boggs tried not to let it register at all. His face, he knew, was very good at being blank. This had been commented upon by parents, schoolteachers, girlfriends. What are you thinking right now? Where are you? Penny for your thoughts? He’d always hated those questions. I’m right here. I’m thinking thoughts, any thoughts, who knows. And no, you can’t buy them.
Normally you weren’t supposed to look white folks in the eye. But Boggs was the police. This was only the third time he and Smith had dealt with a white perpetrator. Colored officers only patrolled the colored parts of town, where whites were infrequent visitors.
“I need to see your license and registration, sir.”
“You don’t need to see anything, boy.”
Boggs felt his heart rate spike and he told himself to stay calm. “Please turn your car off, sir,” he said, realizing he should have started with that.
“You don’t have the power to arrest me and you know it.”
On the other side, Smith took this as the proper time to beam the backseat. He didn’t see anything there, other than a road atlas on the floorboards. The car was prewar but in good condition, the vinyl shining. Smith aimed his light at the front seat, where the woman had been staring ahead, her hair blocking his view. He had hoped the light would startle her into looking at him, so he could better study her injury and look for others, but she turned farther away.
Smith, unlike Boggs, had a good view of the space between driver and passenger. He saw that the man’s right hand was resting protectively atop a large brown envelope.
“I do have the authority to issue you a traffic citation, sir, and I intend to do that,” Boggs said. “I also have the ability to call white officers here, should your arrest be required. I wouldn’t have thought that necessary for something as minor as a traffic violation, but if you want to push things up the ladder with your tone, then I can oblige you.”
The white man smiled, entertained.
“Oh. Oh, damn. You’re one of the smart ones, huh?” He nodded, looking Boggs up and down as though finally laying eyes on a new kind of jungle cat the zoo had imported. “I’m very impressed. Y’all certainly have come a long way.”
“Sir, this is the last time that I’ll be the one asking you for your license and registration.”
Still smiling at Boggs, still not moving.
On the other side of the car, Smith asked, “What’s your name, miss?”
“Don’t you talk to her,” the white man snapped, turning to the side. All he could have seen from his vantage was Smith’s midsection, his badge (yes, we really are cops, sorry for the inconvenience), and perhaps the handle of Smith’s holstered gun (yes, it’s real).
“Are you all right, miss?” Smith asked the woman. Let’s see how the white man likes being ignored. Her face he still couldn’t see, though her breaths occasionally made her hair move just enough for him to see the right, bruised side of her lips. Yet she refused to turn.
Smith glanced up at his partner over the car roof. Both of them would have loved to see this blowhard arrested, but they weren’t sure if Dispatch would bother sending a white squad car for an auto accident whose only victim was an inanimate object. And Atlanta’s eight colored officers hated calling in the white cops for any reason whatsoever. They did not appreciate the reminder that they had only so much power.
Smith leaned back down and said, “Your friend isn’t very friendly, miss.”
The white man said, “I told you not to talk to her, boy.”
“Sir,” Boggs said to the back of the man’s hat, trying to regain control (had he ever had it?), and annoyed at his partner for escalating the situation, “if you do not show me your license and registration, then I will call in—”
He didn’t get to finish his pathetic threat, the threat he was ashamed to need and far more ashamed to use, because in the middle of his sentence the white man turned back to face the road and shifted into gear, the Buick lurching forward.
Both cops stepped back so their feet wouldn’t be run over.
The Buick drove off, but it didn’t even have the decency to speed. The white man wasn’t fleeing, he simply had tired of pretending that their existence mattered.
“‘Stop or I’ll call the real cops’” Smith shook his head. “Funny how that don’t work.”
Atlanta, Georgia. Two parts Confederate racist to two parts Negro to one part something-that-doesn’t-quite-have-a-name-for-it-yet. Neither city nor country but some odd combination, a once sleepy railroad crossing that had exploded due to the wartime need for matériel and the necessities of shipping it. Even after the war, all those factories and textile mills and rail yards were still churning, because normalcy had returned and Americans were desperate for new clothes and washing machines and automobiles, and the South was very good at providing cheap, nonunionized labor. So Atlanta continued to grow, the trains continued to disgorge new residents and the tenements grew more crowded and the moonshine continued to be driven down from the mountains and the streets spilled over with even yet more passion and schemes and brawls, because there on the Georgia piedmont something had been set loose that might never again be contained.
Twenty blocks away from Boggs and Smith, Officer Denny Rakestraw was dividing himself in two again.
Standing in an alley off Decatur Street, a colored section of town, though he and his partner were white. Staring up at the sliver of moon above him, perfectly framed between the tops of the two brick buildings. Listening to the sound of an approaching westbound freight train slowly, slowly trudge its way from the downtown yards. Then looking at his shiny cop shoes. Then turning to look behind him at the squad car they had left on the side of the road, lights not blinking because his partner, Lionel Dunlow, said he didn’t want the attention.
Dunlow hit the Negro again. “I said, did you hear what I said, nigger?”
The Negro was trying to say something, Rakestraw could tell, but Dunlow was holding him too tightly around the throat.
Then the sound of soles scuffing, and Rakestraw’s attention was drawn to the mouth of the alley again. Two silhouettes were watching them.
“Dammit, clear that out,” Dunlow instructed his young partner.
Rakestraw took a step toward the two silhouettes. They were either young men or teenagers, tall but slight, hardly a threat. Drawn here by the sound of the beating, not any desire to intervene.
“Beat it!” Rakestraw yelled in his lowest register, bass notes practically shaking dust from the mortar in the brick walls. The shadows beat it.
Then another swing from Dunlow and the Negro was on the ground.
“Thought we didn’t want attention,” Rakestraw said.
This constituted a significant workout for Officer Dunlow. Sweat ran down his cheeks, and his cap was askew. His belt was strained by his forty-some-odd-year-old belly, and he was panting even though he’d thrown only five or six punches. Failed physicals were in his immediate future.
Rakestraw hadn’t thrown a punch himself, had in fact barely moved, yet beneath his uniform his skin, too, was slick. Not from exertion but the opposite, the stress of holding himself back, the anxiety of watching this again.
“You’re right,” Dunlow said, catching his breath. He stepped closer to the loudly breathing mound that, minutes ago, had been a Negro walking alone, a man Dunlow suspected of bootlegging moonshine. Dunlow looked down at the mound. “We come to an understanding, boy?”
This was a phrase Rakestraw had heard his partner use so often now that it echoed in his sleep. Dunlow and perpetrators came to an understanding, Dunlow and witnesses came to an understanding, even Dunlow and the judges before whom he testified came to an understanding. The man seemed confident that he possessed a vast reservoir of knowledge, which he in his goodwill shared with those around him.
“Yeah, yeah. I unnerstand.” It sounded funny because some teeth were missing.
Rakestraw saw that flicker in his partner’s eyes, something he’d seen a few times now. It foretold very bad things indeed. So Rakestraw stepped forward and put a hand on his partner’s shoulder. Dunlow was taller by two inches; that and the age difference made this feel uncomfortably like a son trying to coax his drunk daddy back from the brink of slapping Ma around some.
“Dunlow,” Rake said.
Dunlow looked back at Rake like he barely recognized him for a second, like maybe he’d actually expected to see a son and not his partner. Dunlow did have sons, two of them, in their teens and by all accounts hell-raisers who lacked rap sheets only because of their father’s occupation. The veteran cop’s eyes were fiery and he appeared on the verge of taking a swing at this junior interloper, the way he probably had numerous times to his sons. Then he recognized Rake and returned to where he was.
Rake said, “Made yourself clear, I think.”
But not before a final kick in the gut for emphasis, and the lump on the ground hissed a long inhalation, then silence, like he was afraid to let it out. By the time he exhaled, the two cops were gone from the alley.
Rake chose to believe that his partner’s extreme response to the bootlegger was due to a passionate desire to enforce the city’s alcohol ordinances. He chose to believe a lot of things about Dunlow. Such believing took work, not unlike religious faith, the devout belief in things that could not be proven. Because in the case of the not-terribly-godlike Dunlow, there often was strong evidence to the contrary. In the weeks since Rake had taken his oath, he had seen Dunlow beat at least a dozen men (usually Negroes) rather than arresting them, had seen him instruct a few men on what to say if and when they needed to stand witness at a trial, and had seen him take a handful of bribes from bootleggers and numbers runners and madams.
There was a lot that Rake was learning about his new occupation. He had survived against steep odds for years in Europe as an advance scout, had been alone for long stretches and had wisely figured the difference between threats and opportunities, collaborators and spies. Back home in Atlanta, however, he was finding the moral territory more difficult to chart than he’d expected.
Rake wondered if there was a particular reason Dunlow had beaten this Negro, a particular message he’d been sending, and, if so, was it any more nuanced than the message Rake’s own dog sent whenever he lifted his leg on the neighborhood walk. In such cases, Rake rationalized that his job was just to hold on to the leash, hold on to the leash.
So Rake stood there and tried to divide himself in half. One half of him would hold tight to his moral compass, that small wobbly thing that prevented him from beating a stranger without cause. The other half of him would learn everything he could from Dunlow and his fellow officers, the surprising and often counterintuitive pieces of advice on how to survive in Darktown.
“I’ll drive,” Rake said, opening the driver’s door before his elder could object.
Dunlow sat in shotgun and peeled off his gloves, sucking in his breath.
“Y’all right?” Rake asked.
“Bastard had a hard head.”
“Sounded like it.”
“You know the average nigger skull is nearly two inches thicker’n ours?”
Rake wasn’t the type to indulge such comments. But he didn’t feel he had much choice around Dunlow, so he went for the neutral, “I did not know that.”
“Read it in a journal. Phrenologists.”
“I’ve been reading the wrong journals, I guess.”
“I ain’t surprised, college boy.” Dunlow called him that even though Rake hadn’t graduated, doing only two years before the war changed everything. Fluent in German thanks to an immigrant mother and two years of courses at UGA, his skill had been prized indeed. “Anyway, explains a lot, don’t it? Not just the lack of room for a fully evolved brain, but, you know, your basic hard-headedness and all.”
“His skull looked plenty malleable to me.”
Dunlow made a fist, then extended his fingers. He had double-jointed thumbs. He could extend them all the way back to his wrists, a gruesome circus trick—he liked to surprise newcomers by doing that after opening a bottle of Co-Cola, crying in pain for a moment, receiving a horrified reaction from the witness, and then he’d bust a gut laughing. He bragged that he’d been the greatest thumb wrestler in his elementary school, which was exactly the sort of bizarre accomplishment only he would boast about.
It also meant that, when wrapping his hands around someone’s throat, he had an extra couple of inches of grip, an advantage which he’d just employed.
Dunlow made a fist again. Rake heard a tendon pop.
“Ah, shit. That’s better.”
Then Dispatch came over the radio, mentioning how Negro Officer Boggs was reporting a traffic violation, and did any real cops feel the need to assist? Dunlow picked up the mike and said he’d love to.
After the white man had driven away, Boggs and Smith had walked to the nearest call box, requesting a squad car to make an arrest. Dispatch had mercifully refrained from commentary as he relayed the information over the wires, and a white squad car, D-152, had immediately called in to say it was coming. Smith and Boggs were surprised—usually the white cops took their sweet time responding to anything the colored officers requested. D-152 must have been mighty bored that night.
Five minutes later, they were walking a few blocks south of Auburn, approaching the National Pencil Factory and its ever-present smell of wood shavings, when they saw the Buick again. It was actually stopped at the end of the next block, obeying a stop sign. It lingered there.
“What’s he doing?” Boggs asked. “Circling around for something?”
Boggs imagined himself shooting the Buick’s tires. Which of course would get him fired, or worse. No colored officer had yet discharged a firearm in the line of duty.
“Maybe he’s given up?” Smith asked. He hurried toward it, not quite running but moving fast enough that his injured knee was very displeased.
He and Boggs were only ten feet away when they saw the white man hit the girl. Even through the back windshield it was unmistakable, the white man’s gray sleeve lashing out, the passenger’s long hair flailing to the right. The whole car seemed to jump.
Then the Buick drove on again.
“Let’s keep after it,” Boggs said.
The Buick was moving south, and in two blocks they would be near another call box. They could at least update Dispatch as to the car’s location, in case D-152 really was on its way.
They ran. The Buick still wasn’t going a normal speed, as if it was on the prowl for something. Clearly the driver didn’t see the two cops giving chase.
Smith’s knee was giving him a rather clear and unadulterated warning that this whole running business had best stop soon. After another block they reached the intersection with Decatur Street, just north of the train tracks. Again the Buick obeyed a stop sign.
Then its passenger door opened. The woman darted out, her yellow sundress a tiny flame in the dark night until she vanished into an alley.
The Buick stayed where it was, the door hanging open like an unanswered question. Then the white man leaned over, his pale hand appearing outside the car and grasping drunkenly for the handle. He closed the door and drove on.
“Chase him or follow her?” Boggs wondered aloud as he and Smith stopped.
They could have split up. Smith could have pursued the woman and Boggs could have continued his chase of the Buick. But Sergeant McInnis had warned them many times against separating themselves from each other. Apparently, the Department felt that a lone Negro officer was not terribly trustworthy, and that a second Negro officer somehow had a restraining influence on the first. Or something. It was difficult to discern white people’s reasoning.
“I want to see the son of a bitch written up,” Smith said. “Or arrested.”
So although only one of them had seen her face, and that just for a second, they let her disappear into the night, which would never release her.
Boggs sprinted east on Decatur. A half mile ahead of him, the downtown towers were dark. Nearby he could hear freight cars being hitched and unhitched, other behemoths wearily making their way through the night. Smith kept after the Buick, which was headed south now, driving into the short tunnel that cut beneath the tracks. He was losing it. Rats darted in either direction as the Buick splashed a stagnant puddle from that afternoon’s twenty-minute storm. Smith was just about to give up when he heard the familiar horn of a squad car.
He ran through the tunnel and into a scene strobed by blue lights: the tracks curving away to his left, garbage loose on the street and sidewalk, and a squad car pulled sideways to block the path of the Buick, which had finally pulled over.
The white cop who’d been driving jumped out of the car, left hand held high, right hand lingering on the butt of his holstered pistol.
“It’s Dunlow,” Smith said when Boggs made it beside him.
Dunlow ranked high on Boggs and Smith’s list of most hated white officers. Not that there was an actual list. And not that there were many white cops who did not rank high. Maybe it wasn’t so much that Dunlow was worse than the others; the trouble was that he was an ever-present problem. The colored officers were only allowed to work the 6–2 shift, and there were only eight of them, so white officers still had occasion to visit what was now the colored officers’ turf. No white cops had ever had Auburn Avenue as a beat before, they’d simply dropped by the neighborhood when they needed a Negro to pin a crime on, or when they felt like taking out their aggressions on colored victims. Otherwise, white cops had avoided the colored neighborhoods. Dunlow, however, seemed to feel rather at home here, though the residents did not feel nearly so warmly toward him.
“Let me handle him,” Boggs said. He was the more diplomatic of the two, a notion Smith did not like to acknowledge. Even if he knew it to be true.
They adjusted their caps and ties, made sure their shirttails hadn’t come out, and straightened their postures as they slowly walked up to the white Buick.
Dunlow arrived at the driver’s door, trailed by his young partner, Rakestraw. Dunlow seemed to look at the driver longer than necessary before speaking. Perhaps he thought this was intimidating. The days when his bulk had been mostly muscle were gone, but he was still a man accustomed to cutting quite a wake.
“License and registration, please.”
Boggs had spent his entire life giving such white men as wide a berth as possible. Now he had to work with them.
So Boggs concentrated on Dunlow’s partner. He walked up beside Rakestraw and leaned into his ear. If Rakestraw was offended at the proximity, he did not show it. They didn’t have much opinion on Rakestraw, who tended to hide in his partner’s long shadow. He likely would prove to be as much of a bastard as Dunlow once they got to know him.
“He had an adult Negro female in the car with him. She fled on foot, at the corner of Hilliard and Pittman. He’d hit her in the head a block earlier.”
“You saw it?”
“They’d been circling around. It just happened a minute ago.”
Rakestraw offered a neutral expression and the slightest of nods, which could have meant Interesting and could have meant Who cares? and could have meant that he would recommend to the colored officers’ white sergeant that Boggs and Smith be reprimanded for not pursuing the woman.
The driver handed Dunlow his papers and joked, “They got you babysitting the Africans?”
“Understand you fled the scene of an accident,” Dunlow replied.
“Wasn’t no accident. You hear any other car complaining ’bout an accident?”
“It was a lamppost on Auburn Ave,” Boggs said.
Dunlow glared at Boggs. He did not seem to appreciate the colored officer’s contribution to the conversation. He extended the paperwork to Rakestraw, who walked back to their car to call in the information. Then Dunlow said to the colored officers, “That’ll be all, boys.”
Boggs glanced at his partner. Smith was dying to say something, Boggs could tell, but was holding himself back. They hadn’t yet told Dunlow about the assault they’d witnessed. The victim was gone, sure, but a crime is a crime.
Boggs opened his mouth. He tried to choose his words carefully. But before he could do so, the driver chimed in again, in a drunken singsong, “Back to the jungle, monkeys!”
Dunlow cracked a smile.
That approval was all the driver needed: he launched into a rousing chorus of “Yes! We Have No Bananas!”
Dunlow was grinning broadly at the performance as Boggs met his eyes. Boggs held the look for a moment, hoping that he was passing on silent messages but knowing, despite all his effort and anger, that those messages would not be received.
The song was getting louder. Boggs couldn’t even look at his own partner, as he would see the rage there, would see the reflection of himself, and he could not abide that.
Boggs and Smith walked away. The flashing blues painted the top of an eastbound freight train on the crossing.
“Son of a bitch,” Smith cursed.
Boggs spat on the ground. A cockroach half as long as his shoe scuttled across the sidewalk.
“Two bucks says they don’t even ticket him,” Smith said.
Boggs would not take that bet.
A six-year-old boy named Horace was three blocks from his house when he saw the lady in the yellow dress running. She was pretty, he thought, even though he couldn’t much see her face. Then why did he think she was pretty? He would wonder that, later, when thinking back to this moment.
He was walking alone late at night because his mother had woken him up and commanded him to. She was very sick and needed the doctor. She’d given Horace careful directions. He had to hurry, for her sake and because if he took too long, he might forget the directions.
The lady was banging on someone’s front door.
Horace watched her as he passed, and she must have heard him because she turned and looked at him. Looking at him and then not looking, the way adults do when they realize you’re just a kid and they can forget about you now.
He walked on. She stopped knocking.
At the next corner, he looked both ways to cross the street. Then he decided to turn around and see what that lady was up to. He saw her step off the front porch and walk around to the backyard, at which point he couldn’t see her anymore.
He looked both ways to cross again. This time a car was coming, so he waited.
The car pulled up to the curb, right where Horace was standing. The door opened on the opposite side, the engine still on, the headlights still too bright in Horace’s face.
A thin white man walked up to him, a white man in a light gray suit.
“Hello there, son. What are you doing out at this hour?”
It was the kind of voice that adults who aren’t used to talking to kids use.
Horace mumbled something about his mother.
The man squatted down so his eyes were almost at Horace’s level. His eyes were very blue. His hat matched his suit.
“Slow down, son, and enunciate those words.”
Horace had felt mostly confused when the man had stepped out of the car. Now he felt mostly scared. Something about those eyes, and the man’s waxy white face, and the way he looked at Horace. Like he was very interested in Horace.
“Mama’s sick. I’m fetching the doctor.”
A loud banging sound, like a garbage can falling over a block away, and then the laughter of coyotes.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Now, I have another question for you, son. Have you seen a colored lady out here tonight, with long hair? In a yellow dress?”
Horace nodded. The man smiled. His teeth were like the drawing in a magazine.
“She went into that building over there, didn’t she?”
“She knocked but couldn’t get in, sir.” He remembered to say “sir.” He had forgotten earlier. “She went ’round back instead.”
Rakestraw sat in his squad car, calling in the license and registration and watching as his partner chatted with the driver. What were they talking about? It seemed more conversation than would normally be taking place right now.
The driver’s name was Brian Underhill and he was forty-three years old. The license listed a Mechanicsville address a short drive away.
Dispatch radioed back that Mr. Underhill did not have any record, warrant, or probationary status. Rakestraw was about to jot out the ticket when he stopped himself. He wasn’t clear on how his partner wanted to proceed. So he stepped out of the squad car and walked toward the Buick.
Dunlow had been saying something, but he stopped as Rake handed over the papers.
“Thank you,” Dunlow said. “I was just telling Mr. Underhill here to be more careful about his driving.”
“Yes, sir, Officer.” The driver seemed slightly amused by something. So did Dunlow.
“All right,” Dunlow said. “You have a good night.”
Underhill turned his Buick back on. After it was a block away, Rake asked, “No ticket?”
“Me and him came to an understanding.”
“That understanding involved us not ticketing him for being drunk and knocking down a city light pole?”
“What light pole? You see any light pole?”
“Boggs and Smith say they saw it.”
“Don’t recall the darkies saying they actually witnessed it. Though they may have. Even so, it’s one less light in Darktown. Practically a civic service the man performed for us.”
Dunlow walked back to the car, taking the driver’s side this time.
“Wonder who the girl was,” Rakestraw said as he got in, trying not to sound too accusatory.
“Again, I myself do not recall seeing any girl. Darkies say they did, I’m sure they’re sniffing around the bushes for her right now.”
Dunlow probably believed that the colored cops did indeed possess such heightened powers of smell. Among other powers.
“And when Boggs and Smith file a report about it?” he asked.
“They’re dumb, but not that dumb. Niggers know if they step on my toes, I kick hard.” He turned on the car. “Let’s patrol a more respectable area of our fair city.”
The white man in the light gray suit had been smiling at Horace for longer than felt normal.
“You’re a good little boy, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” Horace’s mother had warned him about white people, that he should never speak to them unless they spoke first, and that if he did, he needed to say “sir” and “ma’am” and not be rude but to get away as quickly as he could before they did something terrible.
She had refused to say what it was people like this did that was so awful. Horace figured they ate colored people, or at least colored children.
What else had his mother said? That’s right, not to look into their eyes.
Yet Horace had looked into the man’s eyes the moment the man had crouched down, and he could not look away. They were so blue and empty he felt himself being pulled in more deeply to fill that void. Horace shifted on his bare feet.
The man reached out and patted Horace’s head. Once, two times. The second time, the hand lingered there. Then it moved, slowly, to the base of Horace’s neck.
The man’s hand slipped behind Horace’s right ear, then reappeared again. Between the man’s forefinger and thumb was a shiny dime.
“You can pay the colored doctor with that.”
Horace realized he should be reaching out with his hand, so he did, and the man placed the coin in his palm. Then the man stood, and without that eye contact it was like he vanished.
Horace hurriedly crossed the road.
He was still clutching the coin and had walked another block when he realized that he had indeed forgotten his mother’s directions to the doctor’s, and he was lost now, and so very tired.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Darktown includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The award-winning author of The Last Town on Earth delivers a riveting and elegant police procedural set in 1948 Atlanta, exploring a murder, corrupt police, and strained race relations that feels ripped from today's headlines.
Responding to orders from on high, the Atlanta Police Department is forced to hire its first black officers, including war veterans Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith. The newly minted policemen are met with deep hostility by their white peers; they aren’t allowed to arrest white suspects, drive squad cars, or set foot in the police headquarters.
When a black woman who was last seen in a car driven by a white man turns up dead, Boggs and Smith suspect white cops are behind it. Their investigation sets them up against a brutal cop, Dunlow, who has long run the neighborhood as his own, and his partner, Rakestraw, a young progressive who may or may not be willing to make allies across color lines. Among shady moonshiners, duplicitous madams, crooked lawmen, and the constant restrictions of Jim Crow, Boggs and Smith will risk their new jobs, and their lives, while navigating a dangerous world—a world on the cusp of great change.
Set in the postwar, pre-civil rights South, and evoking the socially resonant and morally complex crime novels of Dennis Lehane and Walter Mosley, Darktown is a vivid, smart, intricately plotted crime saga that explores the timely issues of race, law enforcement, and the uneven scales of justice.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Although Darktown is set in 1948, many reviewers have praised it for being more relevant than ever. Why do you think readers are finding Darktown so timely? Did you? Which scenes resonated with you?
2. BOLO Books commended Darktown for being an example of “how crime fiction can elucidate the topic [of race] with pinpoint accuracy,” stating, “this novel should be required reading for both police forces nationwide and the citizens they seek to protect.” Discuss this statement. What might both police and the communities they are policing learn from Darktown? Was there anything you found particularly surprising about the way that the police interacted with the citizens of Atlanta in Darktown? If so, what?
3. Explain the significance of the title of the book. Why do you think Mullen used it? Did your interpretation of the title change as you read? How?
4. What were your initial impressions of Denny Rakestraw? When first introduced, Mullen writes, “Officer Denny Rakestraw was dividing himself in two again” (page 9). Discuss this statement. Why is Rakestraw conflicted in his role? Compare his style of policing with that of his partner, Lionel Dunlow. Which method do you think is more effective?
5. Boggs and Smith are from different worlds. How does this influence their partnership? Do their different backgrounds affect the way they approach their duties as officers? In what ways?
6. After Tommy Smith’s dispute with Zo at Ruffin’s Royal Hideaway, the owner of the bar grips his arm and says, “There is a lot riding on you, son. And I expect you to bear that in mind day and night” (page 157). How do you feel the pressure from their community of having to be “perfect” benefitted the eight black officers? How did it negatively impact them? How do you feel Boggs and Smith lived up to the task?
7. After James James Jameson’s funeral service, members of the community are furious with Boggs, saying, “I thought you were supposed to do something about this” (page 85). How well do you feel Boggs and Smith balanced the needs of their community with the obligations of their job? What, if anything, would you have done differently?
8. On page 216, Uncle Percy says to Boggs, “The evil is so garishly on display here, there’s no mystery to it. It is sunning itself before us, and will strike if you dare approach it.” When Boggs claims he has built immunity to it, Percy says, “You need to bleed those antibodies from your veins, Lucius. Understand me? Bleed them from your veins.” What do you feel Percy meant by this statement? (Consider page 324, when Boggs later thinks, “But maybe he was wrong, and Uncle Percy was right. Maybe he was allowing himself to be fooled here . . .”) Do you agree with Uncle Percy? Why or why not?
9. On page 184, when Mama Dove is questioned by Officer Rakestraw about Lily’s death, she says, “The only thing I am fazed by right now is the fact that a cop is here bothering about her. Why? What was so special about this girl?” Consider this statement. How do you feel Mama Dove’s surprise is indicative of the role women are expected to play in this society, if at all? How does each female character—such as Mama Dove, Julie Cannon, and Mrs. Prescott—fulfill and/or reject this role?
10. Boggs struggles greatly with the death of Lily’s father, Otis Ellsworth, saying, “Every time he’d tried to help that family, he cursed it” (page 292). Do you agree? How would you have handled the case differently?
11. After Boggs’s final encounter with Dunlow (page 340), he provides Roland Dooley with two choices: keep silent or turn Boggs in to the police. Consider the consequences of each option for Dooley. How might either option positively or negatively impact society as a whole? If you were in his shoes, what would you have done?
12. In praising Darktown, author Attica Locke said, “There is nothing I love more in a book than hope.” Did you find causes for hope in Darktown? What were they?
13. Pundits often comment on how today’s politics are more polarized and partisan than ever. But as Darktown shows, people have always been fiercely divided—even in years, like 1948, that don’t show up in many history books. Did any of the various conflicts in the book—between white and black, police and civilian, wealthy and working class, urban and rural—cause you to think differently about some of the debates in our time?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Darktown has been optioned for a television series. Who would you cast in the lead roles? Why? Which scenes in Darktown did you find particularly cinematic? Discuss them with your book club.
2. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly praised Darktown, saying, “This page-turner reads like the best of James Ellroy.” Read one of James Ellroy’s novels with your book club and compare and contrast the novels.
3. To learn more about Thomas Mullen and his other books, read reviews of his works, and find him on tour, visit his official site at ThomasMullen.net.