Thomas Mullen has been playing with genres for a long time. He has mixed historical fiction with magical realism, played with the spy novel, and is now mixing a police procedural with a fact-based piece of historical fiction. He got the idea for his latest book, Darktown (Atria, Sept.), when he was reading a textbook and found three pages about the first black police officers in Atlanta. “I just wanted to know more.” They couldn’t drive a squad car, arrest a white person, or in fact even have an office in the headquarters of the police department. He toyed with the idea of writing a nonfiction book about the topic, but “Ultimately, I’m a fiction writer.”
With this kernel at the heart of the story, Mullen has created a cast of characters dealing with the mysterious murder of a black woman in 1948, with strains of the civil rights movement. “I’m always looking for tensions, these differences between people. Subtle differences between the different black characters, the different white characters. You’re not going to find they’re all the same.” And with widely varying backgrounds, influences, and experiences, they make the story rich and deep. The two main black officers exemplify that well: the son of a minister who enlisted during WWII, but found himself kept back from the fighting, who has grown up with a moral compass in the shadow of his civic leader father, is partnered with another rookie who in the first few pages tells us he was injured jumping out of a window when his date’s husband came home unexpectedly. There are veterans and nonveterans, a sense of duty or lack of it, bigots and outright racists. “The backgrounds of the characters inform their world views,” says Mullen. “When I’m doing my research, I’m trying to keep my antenna up to spot those differences.”
One character that isn’t a character is done so well it should be: the heat. Mullen comes up with myriad ways to describe the heat, the sweat, the oppressive humidity of an Atlanta summer. This serves him really well: it puts the reader right there. Which is just what one wants out of a good read.
For his research, Mullen consulted archives at Emory University and the archives of the Atlanta Daily World, the first black newspaper in Atlanta. He came up with such a compelling trove of information, in fact, that he wants to pursue these characters and these issues in future books, and TV/film rights have been sold to Sony Pictures.
Thomas Mullen will be part of the “Adult Authors Buzz” panel, today, 10–10:45 a.m., and will be signing galleys in the Simon & Schuster booth (2016, 2017) following the panel.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.