Thomas Mullen’s sequel to Darktown, Lightning Men, made for uncomfortable but illuminating reading on the day of and day after the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this novel, Atlanta, Georgia’s first African American police officers get caught in the literal and figurative crossfire of blockbusting, white flight, the Ku Klux Klan, moonshine and marijuana smuggling, police corruption, and their own doubts about their ability to do their jobs in the face of persistent racism. Lightning Men gives readers a close up view of the ugliness of white racism in 1950—while the news gave me a look at the 2017 version.
Lightning Men centers on a trio of officers. Officer Lucius Boggs and Officer Thomas Smith are two of the new African American officers hired two years previously when city hall caved to popular pressure. Officer Denny Rakestraw is a white officer who tries to be progressive, but has faced a lot of social and familial pressure to toe the line in terms of race relations. The narrative bounces back and forth between the three men as a series of violent incidents—a drug drop off gone wrong, two beatings attributed to the Klan, etc.—erupt in rapid succession. At first, it looks like they’re all pursuing separate crimes but, as we learn more from various informants, the crimes start to look more like ripples from one big crime or overlapping circles in a Venn diagram.
I was a little frustrated at first, because I wasn’t sure how everything was going to fit together. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together and I was deeply irritated at the way all three seemed to be barreling on individually, instead of working together once things started to coalesce. But once Lightning Men hit its stride, I started to appreciate the realism of this messy mystery. This novel is not a traditionally structured mystery. Rather, it’s a book that shows readers the deep divisions in mid-century Atlanta and the forces that worked to keep those divisions in place.
Once the players in the various conspiracies are all introduced (which doesn’t happen in full until a third of the way through the book), Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw are all privately digging into what happened on nights when both black and white men were attacked and beaten or killed. Boggs and Smith are trying to work out what’s going on with two rival smuggling operations in the black parts of town. Smith is also trying to help his brother-in-law and sister, who just moved into a previously all-white neighborhood, after his brother-in-law is almost beaten to death. Rakestraw, meanwhile, is trying to help his own brother-in-law, who gets into serious trouble trying to do favors for a man who says he’s a Klansman. I’m being deliberately vague, because the truth is a lot more devious.
As the novel rolled on, I wanted to yell at all three of the men for not working together. It never occurs to them to share information because the black officers and the white officer are mistrustful of each other. Much of this distrust comes from previous experience but, the longer things go on, the distrust also comes from the way the officers start to take the law into their own hands to either cover up family involvement or because there won’t be consequences for the criminals otherwise.
Once I started to understand the sprawling plot of Lightning Men and its characters, I started to appreciate the novel a lot more. Unlike most mysteries, which have a fairly simple arc of detectives tracking down a single criminal or small group of conspirators, Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw are taking on large, established groups of criminals. Rakestraw also has to deal with the fearful fragility of his white neighbors because, the longer African American families live in their part of the city, the more likely those neighbors are to do something tragically violent.
I can’t say that I enjoyed Lightning Men as such, but I can say that I was very interested in the way the novel builds on itself as the plot expands and the backstory deepens. Perhaps the book resonated with me so much because I was reading it while Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists fought with counter protesters this weekend. At any rate, Lightning Men serves as a keen reminder that American racism has a long, ugly, hateful tradition and that we still have a lot of work to do rooting it out and destroying it.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.