Decatur’s Thomas Mullen walks historic beat with ‘Darktown’

“They were cops with an asterisk,” novelist Thomas Mullen says of Atlanta’s first black police officers. Hired in 1948 when Jim Crow still held sway in Georgia politics, the eight officers faced sharp restrictions on their authority, being unable to drive squad cars, enter the police headquarters through the front door or arrest white people.

As a novelist acclaimed for his historical fiction, Mullen was fascinated by how the so-called “Negro Policemen” occupied a gray area at a time when the South was rigidly black and white. “On one hand, they were second-class citizens as black men in the South,” he says. “But they were also authority figures, issued uniforms and badges, responsible for upholding the law. I wondered, what were the pressures, the contradictions they would deal with, second by second, year in year out?”

Exploring that question led Mullen to write “Darktown,” an engrossing account of race and law enforcement in Atlanta in that it doubles as a crackling mystery story. Already optioned by Sony for a potential television series, with Jamie Foxx as a producer, “Darktown” will be published on Sept. 13, with Mullen discussing the book at two events at the AJC Decatur Book Festival this weekend.

Mullen is originally from Rhode Island, and after he and his family moved to Decatur in 2008, he found inspiration for “Darktown” when reading up on his new home. “As a relative newcomer, I wanted to learn more about Atlanta history,” he says. “I read ‘Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn’ by Gary Pomerantz. It has a four-page passage about the circumstances that lead to the hiring of the first black police officers. I read that and was just blown away. It seemed like a great setup for a book.”

“Darktown” follows two pairs of police officers. Newly minted black patrolmen Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith keep the peace in the Auburn Avenue area, facing open hostility from white officers and frequent resentment from the black community. Brutal, racist patrolman Lionel Dunlow vows to drive the black officers from the force, despite the misgivings of his conscientious rookie partner Denny Rakestraw. The murder of a young black woman prompts the officers to cross Atlanta’s racial divides to solve the crime.

Mullen dislikes being labeled as a “historical novelist,” although most of his books have focused on the past since the 2006 publication of his first novel, “The Last Town on Earth.” Winner of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction, his debut book took place against the backdrop of America’s 1918 flu epidemic, while his follow-up, “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers,” depicted Depression-era bank robbers turned folk heroes.

Despite being a period piece, “Darktown” serves as pointed commentary on the American tensions of race and the criminal justice system, which prove highly relevant in 2016.

“Darktown” doesn’t soft-pedal the harsh realities of Southern racism prior to World War II, as the author felt responsible to truthfully depict the ugly corners of “The City Too Busy to Hate.” “I didn’t want to whitewash or sugarcoat it,” he says. “This is the world they were living in. If I whitewashed it, it’s like giving permission to revisionists who say, ‘We should go back to the 1950s, it was so much better then.’ No, it wasn’t.”

When Mullen realized that the events of “Darktown” take place on the cusp of the civil rights movement of the 1950s, he had the idea to have the book launch an ongoing series. He has completed the second novel, set in 1950 and potentially to be published in the fall of 2017. “I don’t have (the series) all plotted out,” he says. “I would love to get it to at least 1960, when Martin Luther King (Jr.) comes back to Atlanta.”

Having committed to an Atlanta-set series gives him a new advantage. When Mullen published his previous books, fans would share family stories about, say, the 1918 flu epidemic when it was too late to incorporate those perspectives into his work. “Now, I’m looking forward to people coming up to me and saying things like ‘Oh, my granddad was a cop!’” Mullen says. “It’s like my beat now.”

Thomas Mullen will be part of two sessions at the AJC Decatur Book Festival: “Storytelling From Page to Screen,” 1:45 p.m. Sept. 3, Old Courthouse; “Darktown,” 3:45 p.m. Sept. 4, Decatur Presbyterian Sanctuary.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.