“Collusive crab and rampant snake defeat all enterprise,” wrote James Dickey in 1948, the year Thomas Mullen’s crime drama, “Darktown,” is set.
Handicapped by the era’s race codes, rookies Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, two of Atlanta’s first black policemen, wriggle around the plighted cunning hidden in the post-war city’s crazy quilt of neighborhood schemes.
In 1948, when President Truman abolished racial discrimination in the armed forces, Southern Democrats calling themselves Dixiecrats left the party, fracturing Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition.
Nevertheless, Atlanta’s Mayor William Hartsfield, a shrewd political operative whose terms totaled an astonishing 25 years, brokered a deal with local African-American leaders, allowing them eight black policemen if they would deliver him thousands of new voters in return, which they do.
But Boggs, Smith and the others can’t enter white police headquarters, even by a side door. They can’t drive squad cars, conduct investigations, witness interrogations, nor can they enter the morgue, where even the cadavers are segregated. Their base of operations is a “defacto precinct” in the basement of the rat infested Butler Street Negro YMCA.
Why do it? “Because we’re two crazy men who actually like to help people for a living,” says Tommy Smith; “it’s like being a preacher except we get to carry these,” pointing to his weapon. When idealism fades, Boggs decides the whole enterprise might be a sham: “They were not permitted to correct the biggest problems, and when they dared try, they created worse disasters.”
Boggs was drafted upon graduation from Morehouse, but he sat out the war in a “South Carolina training camp … despite his constant appeals to see action.” He has “innocent dates with well-mannered, well-raised young ladies of the Negro intelligentsia,” whereas the hardscrabble Tommy Smith — oh, he’ll produce a gun — is known for his “tomcatting” ways. Smith grew up a stone’s throw from Boggs’ elegant home, which may well have been another planet.
Walking their beat in Sweet Auburn (“the wealthiest Negro neighborhood in Atlanta”) or conducting an off-the-books investigation in Ansley Park (stately homes with “noses held high in disdain”), racial epithets fly at them like magicians’ knives, and they usually find themselves in a permanent crossfire of resentment: the hatred of their white colleagues, who make orangutan noises in their presence; the disappointed expectations of the “Reverends” — Boggs’ dignified father and his colleague, Martin Luther King Sr.
Before the arrival of the new black policemen, white cops never patrolled Auburn Avenue. “They’d simply dropped by the neighborhood when they needed a Negro to pin a crime on,” writes Mullen. Perhaps the “celestial presence” of a new solitary lamppost lobbied for by community elders could change all that.
Then again, perhaps not, as the beleaguered pair discovers one summer night when they saunter up to a fat Buick that’s knocked over the pole. Behind the wheel is Brian Underhill, member of the so-called Rust Division, a clandestine group of disgraced white ex-cops who get by as fixers and deliverymen for prostitutes. Next to him on the front seat, is Lily Ellsworth, a mysterious young black woman in a “canary-yellow” dress.
Minutes later, two white patrolmen arrive on the scene: the thuggish Lionel Dunlow, the book’s racist oaf, and Dennis Rakestraw, a former UGA student who speaks fluent German and served as a tour guide at Dachau at the end of the war. The Negro officers begin asking questions but are quickly dismissed by Dunlow, who consults sotto voce with Underhill; the latter putters off, leaving Sweet Auburn’s cherished lamppost at a cockamamie angle.
That should have been the end of it, except it’s not, because a few days later, Boggs and Smith discover Lily’s body in a dump on Krog Street. On their separate-but-unequal hunt for her killer, they are eventually joined by Rakestraw, a reluctant ally who becomes less irresolute as “Darktown” unfolds.
Atlanta is an inferno in which locusts “thrum in the thick July air.” Nature is a sinister zone: one can be cut easily by “dry [holly] leaves sharp enough to draw blood.” Odd details pop up at random: the Hotbox diner; Early’s Late Place; the National Pencil Factory, with its “ever present smell of wood shavings.”
Mullen has a talent for tough-guy lingua franca (“Dunlow hit the door like it owed him money”), and his secondary characters have tremendous dash. The expatriate Uncle Percy, “the best-selling Negro writer in America,” has to be restrained from killing himself every time he returns home from Paris. Mama Dove, geisha-like, is a calculating brothel owner who informs the prudish Boggs, “I like my men with a bit of dirt to them. The grime of living is so much more interesting than the shine of eternity.”
“Darktown” — its film/TV rights have been picked up by Sony with Jamie Foxx in a production capacity — doesn’t have the biblical arc of the 1974 film, “Chinatown,” a hard-boiled retelling of “Paradise Lost” with John Huston playing the satanic figure. Class domination and incest are indeed prevailing features, but Mullen is mostly concerned with getting Boggs and Smith out of Whitetown alive, while the off-stage patriarch is tied-up protecting the backside of his congressional caucus, as it were.
There’s some chivalry, though sex is a cudgel — Atlanta is simply too hot for it! “Darktown” presents another kind of solar flare in the courteous scene that follows an exchange of information between officers: “Rake shook [Boggs’] hand … It was a firm handshake. This was very strange.”
In the polyhedron of weirdness that was segregated reality, the smallest humane gesture, forbidden, could be electrifying, and we sense that Rakestraw’s cerebral cortex has suddenly expanded — at least when it comes to race — though he’s not completely there just yet. All of this, then, is promising for the sequel, which, in fact, Thomas Mullen has rifled over to his editor’s desk already, so there’s plenty of time for further illumination and development, and maybe even a biblical arc or two.
By Thomas Mullen
37 INK/Atria Books
384 pages, $26