The Search Artist Ep 5 Thomas Mullen author of Darktown
Last summer I came across Darktown by Thomas Mullen. This book reminded me of all the reasons why crime novels move me. It had Ellroy vibes. It had classic noir swagger. It was set in the past in a way that illustrated history and made it come alive. The cover screamed at me, "You will dig this." To top it off it's set in Atlanta, a southern city not far from Nashville. For my books I scour the history of Nashville and dig up crime and refashion it to fit a story. Reading Darktown was inspiring because I could tell that is what Thomas Mullen did too and he did it damn well. There is plenty of news on the web to suggest the book will be made into a TV series with Jamie Foxx as Executive Producer. While that is exciting in it's own right, book two in the series, Lightning Men comes out in September so buckle up for that. Below is an interview I did with Thomas Mullen. I hope you enjoy it and pick up this book.
Adam Hill-World War II was pivotal for so many aspects of our modern culture. The work force here was put under strain that allowed African Americans new jobs and new roles. Every portion of our society was in closer contact. Were there any World War II events or soldiers that you used as inspiration for Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith to fill in their mental journey?
Thomas Mullen-The war had a huge impact on the growing Civil Rights Movement for a number of reasons. Far more African-Americans served in the war than had in WW1, which means huge numbers returned home having had this experience of fighting for their country and proving that they could handle jobs and roles that white people had previously insisted they couldn’t. (In real life, 6 of Atlanta’s first 8 black cops were war veterans.)
During the war, the black press impressed upon its readers that, in order for the war to truly mean something for all Americans, we needed to wage a “Double V campaign” – victory over fascism abroad and over Jim Crow at home. Why fight fascism overseas only to be discriminated against in Dixie? And as you say, more Americans were working at home than they had in the previous decade plus of the Depression, so women and minorities found themselves in roles previously closed off to them.
Also, news of the Holocaust opened a lot of white folks’ eyes to the evils of discrimination; people who may have been inclined before to give Jim Crow a pass saw, finally, that such racism was just a step on the dark road to genocide, and it needed to be stopped sooner rather than later. So, yes, all these issues, and the stories of so many people from so many walks of life, inspired my various characters.
AH-I love that your Twitter bio refers to you as a, “Professional Time Traveler.” In one interview I listened to you said you didn’t set out to write historical fiction but your agent suggested it? It’s always tempting to idealize the past. Obviously you're not doing that. Some writers find comfort in the past that people have always been awful. But I wonder if life was more interesting? Our natural curiosity had a-lot more room to roam. What do you think about this?
TM-I’ve never been accused of idealizing the past. I think every time period, ours and past times, are rich with nuance and contradiction, swirling debates, deep conflicts. When people (usually white) are tricked into thinking earlier times were simpler and better, they’re succumbing to nostalgia and conveniently overlooking a whole lot of messy stuff. And that’s the stuff I find most interesting for fiction.
AH-Reading Gary Pomerantz’s Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family is what got you started on the story for Darktown. What was your next step?
TM-His great book, about two Atlanta families over 150 years of history, gave me a few basic facts about Atlanta’s first African-American officers, such as how they could only patrol black neighborhoods, only work nights, not drive squad cars or arrest whites, etc. That was the initial hook for me.
To learn more, I dug into the digital archives of the city’s black and white papers to find out how their hiring had been covered back then. Most eye-opening were stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (some of which Pomerantz also wrote, as he was a reporter then) in the 1990s, retrospectives about ’48, in which he spoke to some of those first officers (who have all passed away now). The officers (then retired or near retirement) shared the kinds of stories they were no doubt reluctant to talk about back then, like how the white officers continued to mistreat them for years, used epithets in their presence, tried to pin crimes on them, etc. So I learned a lot that way that I wouldn’t have learned from papers in the 40s, when the cops were understandably less inclined to share those stories.
Also, the Atlanta History Center’s web site has recorded interviews of Chief Herbert Jenkins and two of the first black cops, recorded in the late 70s when they were near retirement. These and lots and lots and lots of books were super helpful.
AH-On that topic, did you read about events in the time period in African American Newspapers, of which Atlanta probably had or has more than most cities, and how the same story was presented in say The Atlanta Constitution? I’m sure there were differences but if you can recall what were some striking incidents and their conflicting narrative?
TM-I can’t recall any particularly striking incident, but yes, events were certainly covered differently in the white papers and black papers, and I continue to dip into those archives from time to time (Atlanta was home to the Atlanta Daily World, the only daily black newspaper in America back then).
Going back just a few years earlier, it wasn’t uncommon for the white papers’ crime stories to be written in this incredibly insulting comic tone, as though the reporters were elbowing their white reader in the ribs and saying “look at the wacky shenanigans these crime-ridden Negroes get themselves into!” Suffice it to say, they covered white crimes differently. That outright derogatory attitude had mostly faded in the white papers’ coverage by the late 40s, but not always.
AH-Your book came out in the aftershocks of shootings of black men by police officers in various states. Part of the reason Atlanta had these eight men become police was to instill confidence that the African American community would have representation and fairness. Yes, the things happening now are horrid but I think we can all agree that we are a world removed from 1948. Were there articles or stories you saw in those first years of the program in Atlanta that showed positive effects and positive change? Or did that even get covered?
TM-I didn’t find any story that declared “five years on, crime in the areas where black officers patrol has improved” or anything of that nature. Although I imagine such stories do exist; I just didn’t hunt them down. The overall impression I came away with is that the hiring of black officers, obviously, was an important step and that it improved the way these neighborhoods and their residents were being served and protected. (Because in many cases, they hadn’t been served or protected at all before.)
But nothing happens in a vaccuum: over the next few decades, the country would see far more black officers hired not just in Atlanta but nationwide, but at the same time, we’d see the loss of industrial jobs in urban cores, white flight and the resulting shift in tax dollars away from cities, an overall conservative mood in the country that cut social programs and mental health programs, the War on Drugs, and many other factors that have contributed to our current problem with mass incarceration and a criminal justice system badly in need of reform. Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stephenson, Carol Anderson, and Marc Lamont Hill are just some of the many great journalists, professors and lawyers who have written important books about this recently.
AH-The cops, their city, and the places were real but the murder in your book is made up right?
If it is, it’s a masterful way to illustrate the themes of the time in your book. That’s a huge part of what being a historical fiction writer is, picking the pieces of the past, what they meant, and what they show us when you put them in motion. Was there a story like this? Or was it an artistic construct, rooted in the time?
TM-I initially considered writing a true crime story, so I went in search of an actual murder mystery that would be book-worthy. But ultimately, I’m a fiction writer, so I decided to invent my own crime. As you say, since it’s historical fiction, the story and the characters are invented, but I endeavor to situate them in a time and environment that’s true to history.
AH-Rosa Parks was very intentional. Her moment on the bus was not a spur of the moment decision. She was a lifelong activist, immersed in the cause. Jackie Robinson obviously knew what he was getting into and what change he could bring but under arduous conditions. Do you think the 8 Atlanta Officers had this moment in time sense? If we do this, if we walk the gauntlet then the future gets better.
TM-Yes, absolutely. One of the officers said, years later in an interview, that he signed up mainly because he was sick and tired of hearing adult African-Americans addressed as “boy” and “uncle” or “auntie” or “Emma Mae” by white cops. Every person is unique, of course, but I can’t imagine any of them were unaware of the importance of what they were doing.
AH- Sometimes here in Nashville when I’m working on a story I'll go to the place and see the lay of the land. The physical space teaches me things about the story. Do you get to go to the actual sites of events in your books? When you do what have they taught you? I mean something as simple as knowing when a crime happened that someone was in the door of an alley, seeing that alley, seeing the space really can spark the fire.
TM-Sadly, the parts of Atlanta I’m writing about are physically very different than before. As part of “urban renewal,” neighborhoods in black districts were knocked down to make way for civic centers or highways (thus, it’s often mocked as “Negro removal”). Atlanta basically dropped I-85 on top of Sweet Auburn. So yes, I have walked around some of the neighborhoods, and some old buildings are still there, and there are some great community groups working hard to maintain some properties, but the area was largely destroyed as part of a deliberate policy by white legislators and developers, something that happened not just down in Atlanta but up in New York and in several other cities nationwide in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.
AH-For my book I did a-lot of scrolling through the microfiche of The Tennessean and The Banner. I was History major so it was just like being back in the saddle. It never gets old to me that there is an eternity of stories that sound just like what we see today if we open the paper or swipe a device. You look for one thing and on the same page is something else glowing with possibility completely forgotten in old documents. The Columbians will be in your next book Lightning Men. Can you tell us where you first ran across that organization and what wheels got to turning?
Hard as it to believe, the Columbians were a group of Nazi brownshirts who operated in Atlanta in the late 1940s – AFTER we’d won a war against fascism. That’s powerful evidence that the Double-V campaign was not entirely successful. (And even now, we aren’t free of neo-Nazi groups in the US). They made a point of showing up when African-Americans moved into formerly all-white neighborhoods, firebombing homes and starting riots to scare them away.
I read about them in a number of places, and at one point I wrote them into Darktown before deciding the book was getting too long and convoluted. So while I did retain a subplot about housing in Darktown, but in Lightning Men (coming in September!) this becomes a more integral part of the story: how white groups ranging from Nazis to Klansmen to “respectable” neighborhood associations tried to prevent blacks from moving into areas formerly off limits to them, in the days immediately before Civil Rights victories like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Brown v Board of Education. Among other things, I see Lightning Men as being an exploration of the many different varieties of white resistance to black civil rights. Which, yet again, seems sadly relevant today.