Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review of Dark Town by Thomas Mullen (Abacus, 2016)

Atlanta, 1948. The city has just appointed its first eight black policemen to patrol ‘Dark Town’, a black district, though they have no powers of arrest, having to call white officers to perform those duties. Racism in the city is endemic, no institution more so than the police department, with many white cops seeking to push the new men out or under. Lucius Boggs, a preacher’s son, and Tommy Smith, a former soldier, are finding the new role of policing a strain, viewed with suspicion by some of the black community and despised and badly treated by white officers. One evening they try to detain a former cop who has a beaten young black woman in his car. Veteran Officer Dunlow and rookie, Rakeshaw, let him go without charge. The following day the woman is discovered dead, lying in a pile of rubbish. Boggs and Smith are forbidden from undertaking an investigation, but the white cops seemingly have no interest in the case so they start to dig around. Rakeshaw is also uneasy, his partner is meant to be training him, but so far he’s mostly seen corruption and aggressive racism. When the woman’s father turns up at the police station to identify the body and is accused of murdering his daughter it prompts Rakeshaw into action. Boggs, Smith and Rakeshaw all want justice and reform, but their quest is threatening some powerful people and is in danger of ending before it has really started.

Dark Town is the first book in a historical police procedural set in Atlanta, 1948. The city’s policing is in transition, with corruption within the police force starting to be reined in and the first eight black officers being appointed. Veteran white cops are unhappy at both developments. They want the status quo maintained, the black community to be kept firmly in their place, and the black cops gone. The tension and politics of embedded, overt institutional racism and potential change pervade Mullen’s tale. On the one side are white cops, many of whom are kluxers, who rule the city through violence and corruption, who are supported by white institutions and Jim Crow laws. On the other are the eight new cops, the black community and their leaders, and a handful of white officers who might not be happy with the changes but are uncomfortable with excessive and unwarranted discrimination. At the heart of the story are two partnerships and the death of a young black woman. Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two new black cops; Lionel Dunlow is a veteran white cop and Denny Rakeshaw is his rookie partner. Neither partnership is harmonious, but while Boggs and Smith trust and work for each other, Dunlow and Rakeshaw are at odds. Boggs, Smith and Rakeshaw are all secretly investigating the death, unhappy that it is being ignored by the homicide division. Dunlow is determined to bury the case and preferably Boggs and Smith as well. The three junior officers are playing a dangerous game, one that has larger ramifications than they anticipated. Mullen’s story delivers on multiple levels – strong historicisation, sense of place and contextualisation, nicely drawn characterisation, and a compelling and engaging story. It is not always an easy read, with the explicit racism and violence, but it gives a good sense of social and political relations at the time. The story seemed to run out of steam a little towards the end, and there are a couple of threads that seemed to get lost, but nonetheless this is a story of substance that extends beyond the investigation of a murder to reflect more broadly on society, power and its abuses. 

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