Lightning Men (2017) by Thomas Mullen, is the second in a series of historical mystery/ police procedural novels that begins with Darktown (2015), which I reviewed here. They are set in Jim Crow Atlanta, and are centered around the first black police officers, who patrol the black part of town, known as Darktown.
Lightning Men takes place in 1950, two years after the events of Darktown. There are multiple story lines: Officer Lucius Boggs is getting engaged, much to the chagrin of his minister father, because his fiance, Julia, has a small child. Her child’s father has just been released from prison and wants her back. His partner, Officer Tommy Smith, is worried because his pregnant sister and her husband have moved into a white neighborhood and her husband has been beat nearly to death. The officers have also interrupted a moonshine and reefer drop where a man was killed, and there is a question as to whether one of the black officers was responsible.
Officer Denny Rakestraw, called Rake, has a problem with his brother in law, Dale. While wearing his Klan white robe, Dale was involved in a beating of a white man that resulted in the shooting death of one of his fellow Klansmen. Dale is afraid that things will be traced back to him, as he initiated the beating. So Rake tries to investigate, but also, he lives in that white neighborhood that Tommy’s sister has moved to, and the neighbors, including his wife, are restless and are trying to figure out how to buy the houses back from the black families.
There are so many things going on in this novel–the only thing that disappointed me was that there was almost no actual interaction between Rake and the black officers. This was historically accurate, I’m sure, and an actual friendship would not have been realistic. Rake is more progressive than any other white person in the novel, but he is still a product of his time. One quote: “Rake’s opinion on Klansmen, “the Negro question,” and other related matters owed much to that most important element of Southern character: one’s mama.” Rake’s mother had been an immigrant from Germany just as the United States entered World War I, and because of her experience of discrimination for being German, taught Rake more empathy than most white southerners.
Just as the Rev. Dr. King made a cameo appearance in Darktown, Thurgood Marshall makes a cameo appearance in Lightning Men. There is a third book in the series coming in June 2021: Midnight Atlanta, set five years later, in 1955. And Darktown has been optioned to potentially become a televised dramatic series produced by Jamie Foxx.
I am categorizing Lightning Men as weight-neutral, because there were only a couple of instances of descriptions of the size of characters. At one point, a black couple was neutrally described as “portly.” A couple of characters were described by their short height or extremely tall height and breadth, and pitted against each other in a fight. Mullen doesn’t use fatness as a shorthand for anything negative, but he also doesn’t have any fat characters. I’ll take it.
If you like historical mysteries, I recommend you start with Darktown, and continue with Lightning Men. It will be hard to read about the racism omnipresent at the time, but I think it’s important for white people to read books either written by black authors or that accurately portray black characters. It is a way for white people to start to re-wire our brains to think about things from a black perspective. It is by no means enough, but it is a start. Kudos to Mullen for writing and centering well-developed black characters.