The experience of two black police officers forms the kernel of Thomas Mullen's explosive new novel set in a 1948 Atlanta that was “two parts Confederate racist to two parts Negro to one part something-that-doesn’t-quite-have-a-name-for-it-yet.” Black policemen are as discriminated against in their own headquarters as are black civilians, so these beat cops must have strong moral grounding and resilient natures to put up with the task at hand. Their poorly equipped office is in the basement of the YMCA, run by a man who’d had his door kicked down twelve times for imagined crimes. That man was happy to find a place in his building for the new Darktown police force.
The Wiki for Darktown reports that the Negro neighborhood of Atlanta
stretched from Peachtree Street and Collins Street (now Courtland Street), past Butler Ave. (now Jesse Hill Jr. Ave.) to Jackson Street. It referred to the blocks above Auburn Avenue in what is now Downtown Atlanta and the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Darktown was characterized in the 1930s as a "hell-hole of squalor, degradation, sickness, crime and misery”.Because white police officers did not often want to respond to citizens living in Darktown, the neighborhood was unconstrained and plagued by bad behaviors. In 1948 the Atlanta Police Department trained and hired eight black men, some WWII veterans, to patrol Darktown and keep the peace.
One enters a fiction about race relations written by a white man with a certain amount of trepidation. At the start of the novel we are treated to descriptions of truly despicable behaviors, epithets, taunts, and conditions to which Atlanta's first black officers were exposed, and while we suspect it is all too true, we are not comfortable. No one likes to be reminded how bad it must have been. Not long into the narrative, however, we almost imperceptibly begin to relax into the telling of a crime story that involves shadowy power well beyond the reach of a Negro beat cop a few months into the job. A young pretty black woman is found dead in a garbage heap and the last known person to have been with her was a white ex-cop, fired for corruption some time ago along with some mates on the force.
This is not a novel just about race. This is a novel about policing. One of the things that Mullen reveals to us in this book is the true nature of “the job”: the thorny ethical conundrums and moral relativism that haunts those mean streets. We suspect that police officers have to deal with these difficulties every day of their working lives, and we begin to question whether any man or woman is up to the task. After all, some difficult choices are often made quickly, on the spur of a moment when the police themselves may be facing physical danger.
What is moral relativism? It is the notion that there is no universal concept of right or wrong, good or bad, and that truth and goodness must be examined from the place at which the individual stands. It’s why justice is so hard to nail down, and why judges and juries are so important. But this concept can be stretched to unsupportable lengths, and we are presented with examples of that in this book. It makes for thoughtful reading.
Mullen challenges us with this novel, and if I said "we relax into the reading," I certainly didn't mean for the last half of the story, which ramps up the tension to terror. The film rights for this novel were optioned in a competitive bidding war long before its publication date. The film contract was eventually won by Sony TV with Jaime Foxx as executive producer, Rachel O’Connor producing. It does have a cinematic feel: dark, hot, buggy nights loaded with sweat, blood, and moral conundrum.
Mullen could easily make this first in a series, he was so competent in involving readers with his characters and their edgy situation in the context of crime within and without the Atlanta police force. It feels all kinds of relevant today, as the white population is waking up to race in America and how "discriminatory behavior" manifests. The Epigraph at the beginning of the novel is a quote from one of the first black officers to be inducted into the Atlanta Police Department, Officer Willard Strickland:
”I must tell you, it was not easy for me to raise my right hand and say, ‘I, Willard Strickland, a Negro, do solemnly swear to perform the duties of a Negro Policeman.’”Many thanks to Thomas Mullen for bringing us this absorbing and difficult story, and to Netgalley and Atria Books for sharing the e-galley with me in advance of publication on September 13, 2016. Below, Thomas Mullen answers some questions about Darktown.
MULLEN: The specifics of the book's plot and the characters are invented, but the context is based on historical fact: the rules the black officers had to operate under (not being able to arrest whites, not being able to use headquarters, or drive squad cars, or even walk the beat in white neighborhoods) and the hostile response they received from white officers (the death threats, the repeated use of epithets in their presence, the attempt to frame them for crimes). Those details I didn't invent but found in my research.
Ques: I am not going to deny that reading racial epithets, taunts, and threats towards the black policemen from their white colleagues made me extremely uneasy and uncomfortable, no matter that it could have been factually true. Did you, as a white novelist, have second thoughts about writing a history from the point of view of black men discriminated against for their color?
MULLEN: I needed to be accurate to the times. If I had, say, not had any instances in which whites used the n-word, or had made the white cops seem friendlier to the black officers than they really were, then I would have been whitewashing history. That would only play into the hands of revisionists who like to claim, "hey, it was better in the good ol' days." I take no pleasure in showing instances of racism and cruelty, but to pretend they didn't happen would be dishonest. And I think it's important to remember what these men had to go through, every day.
As far as the black point of view in the book, roughly half of the book is from black characters' perspective and about half is from white characters' perspective. But what's important here is that each character has his or her own, unique perspective--no character should be a mere stand-in for their race, or gender, or religion, or anything. I always want my characters to feel as 3-D and authentic and real as possible, in my other books and in DARKTOWN.
Ques: Many writers would steer clear of a subject so rife with conflict. Do you consciously seek the most explosive subject you can find, confident in your ability to navigate criticisms and the shoals of accusation?
MULLEN: I wouldn't say that I consciously go toward explosive subjects, but I do think that my work has always grappled with what it means to be an American. My first novel, THE LAST TOWN ON EARTH explored the eternal conflicts of society vs. individualism and security vs. liberty through the lens of the 1918 flu epidemic; my second, THE MANY DEATHS OF THE FIREFLY BROTHERS, explored the American Dream and financial insecurity through a tale of Great Depression bank robbers; my third, THE REVISIONISTS, tackled terrorism, espionage, and political idealism. It seemed to me, when I started writing this book four years ago (two years before Ferguson and Black Lives Matter), that race has always been a vital and ongoing component of the American story; it was influencing people's response to President Obama, the rise of Tea Party movement, terrorism, the economy, so much else. I don't think writers should steer clear of important subjects.
Ques: Officer Denny Rakestraw goes some way towards assuaging the conscience of white readers of this novel and acting according to his conscience, and yet he and Officer Lucien Boggs wrestle with moral relativism. Is this something policemen must face every day of their working lives?
MULLEN: I'm drawn to moral dilemmas and complex issues, and yes, it seems to me that policing is rife with them, whether in 2016 or 1948. All the major characters in DARKTOWN are wrestling with what's the best--or the smartest, or the safest, or the most moral, or the most opportunistic--way to remedy their problems, and the way they come to these often-conflicting decisions is what moves the book forward.
Ques: Can you give us some idea of how long this novel took between conception and execution? Is this an idea you have been wishing to write or did you literally “meet” the idea in the form of Officer Strickland?
MULLEN: I got the idea for the book when I read a 4-page passage about the 1948 hiring of Atlanta's black officers in Gary Pomerantz's excellent history of Atlanta, "Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn." I spent two years researching (which is where I found Strickland's speech, at Atlanta's Auburn Avenue Research Library) and writing the first draft, then another year or so on edits with my agent.
Ques: I note your novel has been optioned for TV. Congratulations! I’m sure it has occurred to you and to others who have read your novel that your characters could conceivably live a long life as a crime series. Have you considered that?
MULLEN: Yes, long before I got the TV deal I had envisioned this as a book series. One of the many things that intrigued me about setting a book in 1948 is that so much is going to happen in the next 20 years--from Brown v. Board of Education and the white backlash to school desegregation, to Martin Luther King Jr. returning to Atlanta in 1960, and so much more--that will greatly impact these characters. There are so many stories to tell, and I'm looking forward to taking readers along for a fascinating ride.
Thank you so much!
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