Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Review of The Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen (2017, Atria)

Atlanta, 1950. It’s two years since the first black men were recruited into the Atlanta police department. They have limited powers, are largely confined to the black areas of the city, and are under the command of a white officer. Acting on extracted information, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith stake out a handover of liquor and drugs between white and black men, keen to try and tackle the gangs blighting their neighbourhood. However, their bust going wrong, with bullets flying. The responding white cops seek to frame them for murder. But that’s just one of their problems. Boggs is engaged to a woman his preacher father rejects and the father of her child has just got out of prison and wants to pick up where he left off. Smith’s sister and brother-in-law have moved into a white area and are being threatened by existing residents and Klux members. Smith’s sister is living on the same estate as white cop, Denny Rakestraw. He has a history of reluctantly helping Boggs and Smith, but he has trouble of his own – his brother-in-law Klansman has got himself into trouble by attacking a fellow Klux member, which left one of his friends dead. He’s also actively involved in trying to keep the estate white-only. Against his better judgement, Rakestraw has tried to use his position to protect his bigoted in-law. All three officers are trying to protect family as they tangle with Klansmen, an organization full of racist white cops on the make. Reluctantly, Rakeshaw agrees to help Smith’s in-laws, though it could mean white flight and having to sell-on his own home.

The Lightning Men is the second book in the Darktown series set in post-war Atlanta that follows the exploits of cops on either side of the racial divide that pervades the city. Set in the Deep South, the era of Jim Crow is not fully over, many white cops as members of the Klan, and racial bigotry and discrimination is still actively practiced. Lucius Boggs is the principled son of a preacher who has fallen for a domestic maid with a young son. His partner is the street-wise Tommy Smith, whose sister and brother-in-law have escaped overcrowding by moving into a white neighbourhood. Their white boss, Sergeant McInnis is being punished for opposing police corruption and is a reluctant advocate for his team. Denny Rakeshaw holds similar views, but he has his own problems after his Klansman brother-in-law gets himself caught up in a deadly affair. Most of other cops act in openly racist ways and often have schemes to exploit their position. Mullen spins out an engaging crime tale focused on rival gangs in the city, the activities of the Klan, and attempts to drive blacks from white neighbourhoods. In so doing, he also provides a searing commentary on the racial divisions and conflict in the city and their effects, and in particular the phenomena of white flight and the profiteering and politics around its playing out. There is no pulling of punches in his social critique and the story is all the better for it. The telling becomes a little ragged towards the end as sections become much shorter and tighter, but its nonetheless a compelling read.

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