“Torches — this would have been better with torches,” a fidgety Klansman laments near the start of “Lightning Men,” making an already tense scene even more chilling.
On a drizzly October night, bumbling mill worker Dale has somehow talked two carloads of sheet-wearing vigilantes into a late-night assignment in north Georgia. The mission: to rough up an adulterous banker — who happens to be white, and a fellow Kluxer.
The night doesn’t unfold at all like Dale had imagined, of course. “Jumping out of a parked car in a gravel lot hardly had the same grandeur as tearing across a field astride stallions, a fiery torch in one hand and a pistol in the other, but this would have to do.”
Thomas Mullen’s latest hard-boiled historical novel is a sequel to his hit “Darktown,” continuing the saga of the Atlanta Police Department’s first black officers. If the previous book struck a nerve due to its commentary on police brutality and institutionalized racism, “Lightning Men” goes a step further, mirroring current affairs with almost uncanny accuracy. The early mention of Klansmen with torches proves to be the first of many spooky parallels in a book that asks hard questions of family and Fascism.
Set in 1950, two years after “Darktown,” the mood of the nation sounds eerily familiar. “It felt like they were in a strange, almost drugged moment in which America was going to get pulled into another world war.” In Atlanta, though, the more pressing concern is a multi-front turf war threatening to turn into a race riot. Blurring borders between white and black neighborhoods has mobilized “concerned” community groups and revitalized a cell of neo-Nazis called the Columbians. Overlapping distribution lines for booze and marijuana have crime bosses killing each other. As one informant puts it, “Everything’s out of whack.”
Meanwhile, the 10 black policemen working from the smelly basement of the Butler Street YMCA still can’t arrest white citizens and are banned from white neighborhoods. The novel opens with officers Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith testing the rules thanks to a tip about moonshine smugglers. Their stakeout sets in motion a bloody series of three unsolved murders in four days. “When Boggs had taken this job, he had seen himself as a standard bearer for his people, but sometimes he felt more like a pallbearer.”
The situation isn’t much better for Denny Rakestraw, the book’s other main protagonist. Though the quietly progressive war veteran has moved on from his occupational nightmare in “Darktown,” he’s still viewed with suspicion by black and white colleagues alike.
Mullen does a masterful job layering emotional turmoil when Rakestraw is dispatched to remove an obstinate black family from a whites-only waiting room in the downtown train station. “Rake hated this. Everything about it. The faces staring at him from all sides now, the hostility he could taste in the air like fires lit from fallen leaves. Hated the confines he had to impose on this man.” But he also bristles at the father’s attitude, the “Northern sense of horror at seeing what goes on down here in Dixie.”
He knows that an alarming number of Atlanta cops are secretly members of the Klan, including his new partner. But Parker is a fair-weather Klansman at best, calling the brotherhood “more like an Elks Club, with sillier uniforms. … I just do enough to keep appearances.” The conversation leaves Rake wondering how to separate “the true believers from those who went along to get along — and did it matter?”
The author’s knack for forceful, organic language is obvious throughout the book, but oddly lacking in some of the dialogue. Mullen tends to resist assigning dialects to any of his characters. This may be a wise approach overall, but it sometimes results in hollow, robotic conversations as when Boggs accuses a moonshiner of “poisoning our community with this junk.”
But perhaps that is the point. Boggs, a dapper preacher’s son, can’t compete with his partner’s street cred. Smith’s voice resonates in shadier locales as he grills informants about “reefer and shine, jars and joints.”
“Darktown,” which appears on the Georgia Center for the Book’s 2017 list of titles every Georgian should read, used a compelling murder mystery to shed light on a previously forgotten chapter of local history. “Lightning Men” never coalesces around a particular investigation but morphs into a sprawling police procedural rushing to tie up loose ends.
The knotty narrative gradually reveals a complicated map of intolerance that touches every demographic. Dale and his neighbors hate the influx of black homeowners, which includes Smith’s sister. The Klan dislikes the Fascist Columbians. Even Boggs’ father, a well-heeled minster, looks down on his working-class girlfriend.
Later in the book, someone suggests that xenophobia is just human nature: “You put your family first. Family, clan, blood, race. That’s how life works, so why are you fighting it?”
But for the sympathetic yet complicated Rake, this mentality brings back unwanted memories of war-torn Europe. When Fascist fliers pop up in his neighborhood, he recoils at the shameless symbols taken from an enemy country. “‘Lightning men, the doughboys had called the SS troopers. But they were all lightning men. Not just the Columbians but the Klansmen, too, and the neighborhood association … And the other white people, too, the ones who had allowed those lightning bolt signs to be posted and had not objected. … Some of them were just more honest about it.”
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By Thomas Mullen
384 pages, $26
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