Atlanta, 1950. In a divided city, crime comes home. White officer Denny Rakestraw joins Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith from Atlanta’s Negro Officer precinct to face the Klan, gangs and family warfare in their rapidly changing city. Black families – including Smith’s sister and brother-in-law – are moving into Rake’s formerly all-white neighbourhood, leading Rake’s brother-in-law, a proud Klansman, to launch a scheme to ‘save’ their streets. When those efforts leave a man dead, Rake is forced to choose between loyalty to family or the law. Meanwhile, Boggs has outraged his preacher father by courting a domestic, whose dangerous ex-boyfriend is then released from prison. As Boggs, Smith, and their all-black precinct contend with violent drug dealers fighting for turf in new territory, their personal dramas draw them closer to the fires that threaten to consume Atlanta once again.
A year ago, I read and enjoyed Darktown by Thomas Mullen. It was a great book dealing with a delicate topic and I thought it was handled very well. When I learnt that there was a sequel coming soon, I immediately decided I wanted to read it. For those who haven’t read Darktown, this can be perfectly read as a standalone. I didn’t remember a lot of details, but it wasn’t necessary. And I liked Lightning Men even better.
This novel, like Darktown, tells the story of two young men who are amongst the first black cops in Atlanta, Georgia. The year is 1950 and things are definitely not easy for them. They can only patrol the “black” neighbourhoods and barely have no power, as the white cops don’t respect them and think they shouldn’t be working with them at all. This makes it hard for Boggs and Smith to investigate the cases and this one was especially difficult to break.
It’s sad because I believe now things aren’t much better. Of course we’ve come a long way since then, but it’s not enough. This is a very relevant book right now and it can make all of us reflect on the way our society behaves. Because not all racism is physically violent, but it’s still there and this book perfectly portrays something that is still happening today. A fine example of this is Rakestraw’s storyline, a young policeman whose German origins help him understand what it’s like to feel different. In Lightning Men, Rake’s wife and their neighbours are trying to raise money in order to buy the newest black residents out. What astounded me was that Rake’s wife and the neighbours actually thought they were doing a good thing only because they weren’t behaving violently (as opposed to the KKK case that Rake is investigating). These people merely wanted the neighbourhood to be completely “white”. As they said: “Those poor families were tricked, they didn’t know what they were doing, let’s buy their houses to force them out”. I. Can’t. Even.
The characters in Lightning Men are complex and multi-layered, especially Boggs and Rake. While I still think that Rake was too passive and could’ve prevented plenty of things, I liked him better this time around. On the other hand, I thought Boggs needed to urgently drop his “golden kid” act and grow up. I didn’t like his air of moral superiority towards his girlfriend, Julie, whom I liked a lot, by the way. As for the negatives, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was that I wasn’t able to *love* any of the characters, I didn’t feel I would miss them when I got to the end.
Nevertheless, this is a fantastic novel that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to read a good story that it’s actually important and relevant in today’s society. Don’t miss it.
ARC, Little Brown UK , 2017