Every detective story relays at least two narratives: the story of the crime and the story of the investigation.1 In a police procedural, the story of the investigation has police officers discover the story of a crime using the methods available to a police department. Often the police collaborate with other members of the force, either within or despite the parameters set by the protocols of municipal law enforcement. Repeating this pattern in novel after novel, the police procedural genre propagates “the myth of the Moral Absolutes, which represents police work as engagement in the struggle of Good versus Evil,” and “the perception of the war that can never be won, the battle that must always be fought over.”2
Thomas Mullen’s new novel Darktown challenges the “myths” of the police procedural, expanding the dual narrative structure of crime and investigation with a mystery inspired by the 1948 inauguration of the first eight black policemen in the Atlanta Police Department.3 Darktown alternates between a pair of black cops, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, and a pair of white cops, Dennis Rakestraw and Lionel Dunlow, following the murder of a young black woman named Lily Ellsworth. One review faulted Mullen for writing characters that “exist as signifiers of ideas rather than people.”4 What they collectively signify, however, is right: underlying both the murder and its resolution are the interlaced histories of American racism and law enforcement.
Darktown is a police procedural that shows that the Atlanta PD cared more about white supremacy than they did about actual law enforcement. Just as their counterparts did in reality, so too do Mullen’s fictional black policemen come up against institutionalized racism both inside and outside the police department. Mullen captures the racist restrictions placed on African American officers in all their banality, inanity, and absurdity. If Boggs and Smith didn’t have to change in and out of their uniforms, because they couldn’t wear them beyond their black-majority district; if they were permitted to enter police headquarters at all, much less the medical examiner’s office, rather than being stationed in a YMCA’s basement; if they could request documents from the records office; if they could drive squad cars; if they could exercise authority over white civilians; if black communities didn’t have every reason to mistrust them as law enforcement; if white officers even considered them part of the brotherhood in blue—then the case they investigate might have been solved in the span of a short story. By investigating in the first place, Boggs and Smith consciously break the chain of command; they are only patrolmen, denied even the possibility of promotion to the detective bureau. In other words, obstruction of justice is apparently built into Atlanta law enforcement. Yet the aptly named Boggs tries not to get bogged down as he, along with Smith and eventually Rakestraw, pursue Lily’s killer.
The story of their investigation is partly composed of the personal history of each officer. Boggs presents the most compelling example. A graduate from the historically black Morehouse College and the son of a reform-minded preacher, Boggs reminds himself that he should do what little he can to affirm the value of black lives in the face of state-sanctioned violence. Staving off exhaustion and defeatism as he contemplates why he joined the force, Boggs leaves behind respectability politics—such as being “paragons of our race” or “a good example for colored kids”—in favor of honoring the casualties of institutionalized racism: “‘Maceo Snipes.’ Shot in the back for being the first Negro voter in Taylor County. ‘Isaac Woodward.’ War veteran, blinded two years ago by South Carolina cops for daring to wear his uniform.” Finally, he affirms to Smith, “I want to catch someone who thinks they can get away with killing a colored girl.” Here, Mullen evokes John Ball’s 1965 fictional black police detective Virgil Tibbs, whose childhood memory of a murdered schoolmate motivates him to “do something to punish cold-blooded, wanton murder.”5 Like Mr. Tibbs, Boggs brings not only intelligence to his job, but also a drive toward racial justice through the equitable enforcement of law.
The characters of the white police officers also show how police bring their individual experiences to bear on the enforcement of the law. Only in Rakestraw’s case is that for the better. Rakestraw remembers serving as a US Army scout in Dachau, and his mother, a German immigrant who experienced xenophobia, teaching him about “the evils of race hate.” Rakestraw collaborates with Boggs on Lily’s case and struggles to correct the racism expressed by his colleagues and family members. By contrast, a white persecution complex drives Dunlow not only to save his father’s lynching souvenir, but also to go to extraordinary lengths—even attempted murder—to sabotage the department’s integration program. The notion that law enforcement can remain entirely professional is itself a fiction, since police work is inevitably personal as well. Mullen suggests the stakes are public safety itself.
Darktown also reads as a nuanced meta-narrative about detective fiction. Mullen evokes the literary history of American detective fiction with a black moonshiner character named Chandler Poe—conjuring up Edgar Allan Poe and Raymond Chandler, two towering figures in the genre. Later on in the novel, Mullen has Boggs and his uncle, Percy, discuss two classics of hardboiled detective fiction, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939) and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930). Boggs listens as Percy tacitly posits how Darktown descends from this tradition and then diverges from it by focusing on black police officers:
Chandler and Hammett. Brilliant men. They write about detectives and police officers, so perhaps you’ll find some truth there. Their heroes are good men who discover that their environments are far darker than they’d realized. Grand conspiracies afoot. But I look at you, Officer Lucius, and I can’t imagine a darker place for you. You won’t be the gumshoe who discovers to his horror that he’s in a corrupt world, because you already know it. The evil is so garishly on display here, there’s no mystery to it. It is sunning itself before us, and it will strike if you dare approach it.
Mullen makes the implicit explicit here: Darktown pays homage to the hardboiled tradition. It is neo-noir. Like Hammett and Chandler, Mullen depicts interconnected networks of city crime that link a moonshine racket, a brothel, a two-faced congressman, and a nefarious cohort of retired and active policemen. Mullen’s Atlanta is the more overtly racist cousin of Chandler’s Los Angeles or Hammett’s San Francisco.
The most hardboiled lines in Darktown correspondingly highlight the constant threat of racist violence. In some moments, noir-esque narration serves figuratively to make legible white policemen’s unconstitutional treatment of black civilians. When Dunlow tracks down a black suspect to the suspect’s sister’s home, he “hit the door like it owed him money.” Routinely bursting into the “colored” YMCA, “cops never had a warrant and seldom even had a name.” The manager of the YMCA “reinstalled his door twelve times after cops had kicked it down […] one for each tribe of Israel,” and then “[after] the twelfth time he’d had to replace it.” Mullen further infuses the novel with hardboiled irony when Boggs “realized how quickly he was falling behind on his reading now that he was not busy getting killed on the streets.” Besides these tips of the fedora to Raymond Chandler’s style and wry cynicism, Mullen affirms Chandler’s vision of heroism amid villainy. Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Mullen’s Lucius Boggs embodies Chandler’s dictum in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950): “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean […] the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Similarly, Darktown’s confidence in neo-chivalry comes across as optimistic without sounding naive.
Darktown should also be read within the less well-known tradition of African American detective fiction. Mullen overlooks this literary history, but it goes farther back than Walter Mosley’s 1990 reinvention of the hardboiled tradition with his “Easy” Rawlins novels, to which Darktown is also indebted. Percy Boggs, whom Mullen casts as a popular adventure fiction writer, could have known John Edward Bruce’s The Black Sleuth, a serial about a Yoruban private investigator that ran in the African American magazine McGirt’s from 1907 to 1909. The same goes for Pauline Hopkins’s Hagar’s Daughter, published in 1901–1902 in the Colored American Magazine, whose intergenerational plot about racial passing and slave ownership culminates in a scheme investigated by a black man and teenage girl working as private investigators. At the very least, Percy might have drawn his policeman nephew’s attention to The Conjure-Man Dies, the landmark 1932 novel by Rudolph Fisher about a black officer in the NYPD investigating a suspected homicide in Harlem. Instead, throughout Darktown Mullen drops commonplace names in African American thought from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.
Nonetheless, Darktown does what both detective and historical fiction should; it portrays history not merely as the way things were, but instead shows the reason why they were. Mullen drives home that the novel’s plot depends on Atlanta’s trajectory from the fall of Reconstruction through the end of World War II. He sets contending forces (to evoke another title by Pauline Hopkins) in motion. On one side stand the “Lost Cause” mythos of the Confederacy, Jim Crow segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, lynching, firebombing, the presence of “Kluxers” in the police force, and the prevalence of police brutality against African Americans. On the other are ranged progressive movements for racially equal voting rights, veteran services, fair housing, municipal services, and representation in law enforcement. Their conflicts ultimately inform the novel’s case and its investigation. To read Darktown is therefore also to acquire historical literacy through detective fiction. “I’m a goddamn antiamnesia medication,” Officer Smith declares at one point. This novel certainly is.
Darktown alerts us to the toxic relationships between racism and law enforcement in the mid-20th century. Mullen reportedly drafted Darktown just before the Black Lives Matter movement reinvigorated civil rights discourses surrounding race and policing, which makes the novel feel all the more urgent. Not only does Mullen plan to write a sequel, but a Darktown television series may also arrive soon from executive producer Jamie Foxx.6 Hopefully, the Darktown saga will speak further to failures of due process and equal protection in the United States, and continue to demonstrate how police fiction can frame a conversation about justice.7
- Tzvetan Todorov, “The Typology of Detective Fiction,” in The Poetics of Prose, translated by Richard Howard (Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 42–52. ↩
- George N. Dove, The Police Procedural (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982), p. 134, p. 135. ↩
- On the introduction of African American men into the police departments of Atlanta and other US cities between Reconstruction and post-World War II, see W. Marvin Dulaney, Black Police in America (Indiana University Press, 1996). ↩
- “Darktown,” Kirkus Review, September 6, 2016. ↩
- John Ball, The Eyes of Buddha (Little, Brown, 1976), 120. ↩
- Karen Grigsby Bates, “‘Darktown’ Imagines What It Was Like For Atlanta’s First Black Policemen,” NPR, September 23, 2016. ↩
- For another recent example, see Kinohi Nishikawa, “Police Brutality, A Horror Story,” Public Books, December 15, 2016. ↩