Thomas Mullen’s Darktown series, about the first black policemen in Atlanta’s police force, is about race but it is also about the institution of policing. We are seeing how corruption and discrimination can take hold, and we ask ourselves what is the best way to combat the ever-widening spiral of deceit. We interrogate our own moral grounding and question whether we would be able to withstand the social and economic pressure put to bear to get us to go along on controversial arrests or worse.
It is that evaluative distance and internal interrogation that Mullen creates in us that may be the most remarkable thing about his books. We are thinking critically and watching the narrative unfold from a protective distance even though his stories are gripping—after all, this is life and death in neighborhoods just like ours—and we really never know where he is going to steer us next. But these novels aren’t really mysteries, and they aren’t police procedurals in the typical sense. Do we need a new genre category for the historical and sociological recreation he manages?
Mullen places us in the moment by citing newspaper headlines mentioning what is happening in the country and around the world in 1950:
“Late morning the house is quiet with Cassie and the kids out at a park. Rake read the paper and enjoyed the solitude. An American minesweeper had become the first U.S. ship sunk in the Korean conflict; Joe McCarthy was insisting on a more thorough investigation into the Communist infiltration of the top echelons in the American government; and officials announced that the mysterious explosions in a Brooklyn neighborhood, initially feared to be a Red attack, had in fact been caused by a gas leak…”These headlines do more than situate us in 1950, they also remind us that prejudice and crazy theories about racial or political superiority have been around before and have passed, though not without a fight. One of the very next scenes is a meeting between a cop seeking information on an old case and an FBI agent who’d been involved at the time. The FBI man suggests they meet in a coffee shop to discuss the matter, and the moment Lucien Boggs, a black policeman, begins to walk into the coffee shop attached to a department store, we wonder…Mullen doesn’t let us down. He shows us the disdain and harsh attitude of the woman behind the counter, and the surprise and shutting down of the FBI agent who told Boggs to wait outside until he finished his coffee.
Earlier, a white cop came across a flyer posted to a stop sign in a suburb of Atlanta: “Zoned as a White Community” and emblazoned with a lightning bolt, “just like the ones sewn onto the sleeves of SS troopers he’d seen in Europe.” Mullen takes time to discuss the group he calls the Columbians, a group distinct from the KKK, indeed disdainful of it. This group supported Nazi ideas including the concept of a master race, and apparently believed America fought the Nazis in World War II only because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, making ‘sides’ more clearly defined. Otherwise, America had been more concerned about the red menace from the Soviets.
The rivalry between the Columbians and the KKK, who are derided by practically everyone for the bedsheets disguise, is central to this story and instructive in that it clarifies motives and actors in the messy phenomenon that is racism today. Mullen also spends some time answering the notion that blacks bring misfortune upon themselves. He opens the story with the release of Jeremiah Tanner from prison. Tanner had paid his debt, and readers are inclined to be sympathetic. Throughout the story, our impressions of Jeremiah will change several times, from believing him the most evil of all to believing him the most generous of all. This is Mullen’s skill.
The black lives in this latest novel are so much more difficult and complicated than we imagine at first. Their choices all appear to be bad ones. No surprise, then, that they find themselves in the middle of illegal or compromising situations again and again, and yet when we hear their explanations, they sound rational, making choices we might make in the same place. When you have bad choices, your decisions may look poor also.
The white men’s lives are less appealing altogether. There are a couple of white policemen wrestling with the morality of discrimination and the exclusion of black folk, but most make no effort to push back against the few bad apples that extract fealty or promise retribution within the force. They would revolt against the bad guys on the force, we sense, but they aren’t impacted enough. They need stronger incentives to do right. They aren’t heroes after all, just working men.
Mullen also manages to pack in an excellent example and discussion of the lack of reasonable housing in Atlanta at the time for blacks who did not want to live in substandard apartments in dangerous neighborhoods. The real estate industry wouldn’t certify black realtors so called them “realtists,” a word I found laughably close to “realists.” The phenomenon of “white flight” from neighborhoods into which black residents have moved is discussed in some detail.
When Mullen’s first book in this series, Darktown, came out last year, I asked him how he could write the black man's point of view. His answer shows his authorship of these characters:
“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.”But are his characters authentic? Authentic enough for the series to be acquired prior to publication by Jamie Foxx for TV production. Let’s just say the outline of the characters are there, and our imaginations (or actors) fill in the missing bits that make the piece real. So this is interactive fiction, in a sense. It needs our imagination, experience, and constant attention to understand what precisely is happening here, and to whom. This is an impressive series.
NPR's Scott Simon interviews Thomas Mullen about Lightning Men:
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