The line between right and wrong quickly blurs in Thomas Mullen’s new novel, Lightning Men. The follow-up to his intensely powerful story of Atlanta’s first black cops, Darktown, his latest picks up two years later, in 1950, but is well-crafted enough to stand on its own.
This time, black police officers Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith stumble upon a shipment of moonshine and marijuana destined for their traditionally black neighborhood. When they attempt to apprehend the white suspects—despite black officers not being allowed to arrest whites—a deadly shootout ensues, leaving one man dead and dozens of questions unanswered.
While the central case is engrossing in itself, Mullen doesn’t stop there. The author begins another sweeping arc as black families begin moving into previously all-white neighborhoods. Danny Rakestraw, one of the few white officers to sympathize with and support the department’s fledgling black police force, is further conflicted when his brother-in-law, Dale, rallies the Ku Klux Klan to “save” their neighborhood from further encroachment by black families. Citing the potential for falling property values and increased crime, events quickly spiral out of control as black homes are vandalized and the homeowners are savagely beaten. Rake, in turn, is left to choose between loyalty to his family and his duty to uphold the law. Both of these storylines eventually coalesce toward a shocking, suspense-filled finale.
Brash and unflinching, Lightning Men transcends typical genre stories by highlighting the real-life racial divide of 1950s Atlanta that is rarely discussed, but should never be forgotten. As in Darktown, Mullen examines the issues without losing sense of the personalities involved, creating a deeply affecting portrait of pre-civil rights America while echoing the ongoing racial injustices that persist today.