Lightning Men

A Novel

(Book #2 of The Darktown Series)
LIST PRICE $12.99
About The Book

From the acclaimed author of “the most compelling new series in crime fiction” (Michael Koryta, New York Times bestselling author) comes “a sharply observed novel” (New York Times) that explores race, law enforcement, and justice in mid-century Atlanta.

Officer Denny Rakestraw and “Negro Officers” Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith have their hands full in an overcrowded and rapidly changing Atlanta. It’s 1950 and racial tensions are simmering as black families, including Smith’s sister, begin moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods. When Rake’s brother-in-law launches a scheme to rally the Ku Klux Klan to “save” their neighborhood, his efforts spiral out of control, forcing Rake to choose between loyalty to family or the law.

Across town, Boggs and Smith try to shut down the supply of white lightning and drugs into their territory, finding themselves up against more powerful foes than they’d expected. Battling corrupt cops and ex-cons, Nazi brown shirts and rogue Klansmen, the officers are drawn closer to the fires that threaten to consume the city once again.

With echoes of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, Mullen “expands the boundaries of crime fiction, weaving in eye-opening details from our checkered history” (Chicago Tribune).

Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Lightning Men includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book

Introduction

Officer Denny Rakestraw and “Negro Officers” Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith have their hands full in an overcrowded and rapidly changing Atlanta. It’s 1950 and racial tensions are simmering as black families, including Smith’s sister, begin moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods. When Rake’s brother-in-law launches a scheme to rally the Ku Klux Klan to “save” their neighborhood, his efforts spiral out of control, forcing Rake to choose between loyalty to family or the law.

Across town, Boggs and Smith try to shut down the supply of white lightning and drugs into their territory, finding themselves up against more powerful foes than they’d expected. Battling corrupt cops and ex-cons, Nazi brownshirts and rogue Klansmen, the officers are drawn closer to the fires that threaten to consume the city once again.

With echoes of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, Mullen “expands the boundaries of crime fiction, weaving in eye-opening details from our checkered history” (Chicago Tribune).

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The book opens with the image of a black man being released from prison—and nearly being put back in under false charges. Given our current debates about the over-incarceration of African Americans today, stop-and-frisk policies, and the legacy of the “War on Drugs,” what did you make of this opening?

2. Boggs and Smith continually wrestle with whether they are truly helping their community or if, as policemen under Jim Crow law, they are part of the problem. If you were their friend, would you encourage them to stick with it, or leave the department?

3. Rakestraw is confronted (on page 30) with the dilemma of an angry crowd of whites threatening a black man who refuses to use a colored waiting room:

Rake hated this. Everything about it. The faces staring at him from all sides now, the hostility he could taste in the air like fires lit from fallen leaves. Hated the confines he had to impose on this man.

But also: hated the Negro’s superior tone, the Northern sense of horror at seeing what goes on down here in Dixie, the distaste for this foreign land and its customs.

Are you surprised by how he feels? Do his actions in this scene conform to his beliefs?

4. Similarly, Rake later goes out of his way to help Dale despite the fact that he disagrees with Dale’s white supremacist views. Does the fact that Rake is willing to help Dale show that Rake’s feelings about race are not as noble as he likes to think?

5. Jeremiah repeats the phrase that he is not “a fully formed thing,” that he is “clay” for the Lord to mold. He believes he is meant for something great. At the end of the book, considering his fate, Julie states that he wasn’t meant for anything great at all. What do you make of his belief, and the conclusion to his story?

6. In Chapter 40 (page 293), Boggs gets a firsthand look at what’s been called The Atlanta Way: in times of racial discord, white leaders and black leaders would sit down behind closed doors to try to work out a solution. Proponents, like Reverend Boggs, argue that this helped the black community gain concessions from whites at a time when whites had so much more power and could have resorted to violence. To his son Lucius, however, it looks like his father and other leaders are meekly accepting crumbs from white people’s table rather than insisting on their full rights. Considering the time and place, whom do you agree with?

7. Julie repeatedly lies to Lucius, concealing the true identity of Sage’s father and her own role in Isaiah’s death. Reverend Boggs looks down on her for being “low class” and, in an imaginary conversation with Lucius, he warns her that she “brings with her an entire universe I tried to eclipse from your view” (page 182). How does the conflict here illuminate larger issues about class, crime, and upward mobility?

8. Crime fiction often explores corruption within government, companies, and other large organizations. When you read crime fiction, do you find that its worldview is too dark, and that the real world isn’t so corrupt? Or is anyone who feels that way naïve about the tough realities of our world?

9. Most people are willing to make sacrifices for family that they wouldn’t do for anyone else. How do the characters’ relatives cause them to do things they might not otherwise agree with, and how does this test their beliefs about justice?

10. Were you surprised to learn that there was an American neo-Nazi organization in Atlanta so soon after World War II? What does that tell us about the recent events involving neo-Nazis, the Klan, and the hate-inspired “alt-right” today?

11. The Klan, the Columbians, and CAHP (which is fictional but is based on the real neighborhood associations of the era) use different methods for the same goal: keeping Hanford Park all white. Do the different methods matter at all, or do the characters’ motivations make them more similar than they want to admit?

12. Boggs and Smith try to shut down vice crimes in the black community, but the white cops want those crimes to stay in black neighborhoods and out of white ones. Conversely, Malcolm and Hannah encounter hostility when they break the color line for their residence, going against community ideas of who belongs where. Think of your own city and its history. How have its leaders, or its voters, over time, acted to keep certain people and activities in one area and out of another?

13. The Irons brothers practice a kind of old-fashioned justice, based on retribution, whereas Boggs, Smith, Rake, and McGinnis practice official law enforcement. Do the weaknesses of one make the other necessary?

14. Why did Smith pull the trigger? And why doesn’t Boggs report him for doing so?

15. Hannah and Malcolm stay in Hanford Park, and Lucius and Julie soon join them as the neighborhood quickly goes from all white to all black. We see this both from their perspective and from the view of the Rakestraws, who flee to another area. The book is set right as America will begin a period of rapid urban transformation and see the explosion of mostly white suburbs. How do their actions predict the bigger changes of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s?

16. At the end of the book, Rakestraw finds himself bitter about the move out of his neighborhood, and angry about the way his work with Boggs and Smith has made him look suspect in other whites’ eyes. What do you make of where Rakestraw finds himself, and how he feels about it?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Watch some recent movies set in this time period, like Mudbound, 42, or Marshall, and discuss how the depiction of these issues in film differs from those in books.

2. Research the history of your own neighborhood. How has its racial composition changed since the 1940s, and why?

3. Though Lightning Men is set nearly seventy years ago, the social justice issues it addresses are very much alive today. Read a nonfiction book about social justice in our own time, like Bryan Stephenson’s Just Mercy, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, or James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own, and discuss where we’ve made progress and where we’re still falling short.
About The Author
Photograph by Jeff Roffman

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Lightning Men, Darktown, and The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA TODAY. He was also awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction for The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers and The Revisionists. His works have been named to Year’s Best lists by The Chicago Tribune and USA TODAY, among others. His stories and essays have been published in Grantland, Paste, and the Huffington Post, and his Atlanta Magazine true crime story about a novelist/con man won the City and Regional Magazine Award for Best Feature. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and sons.

Product Details
  • Publisher: 37 Ink (September 2017)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501138812

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Raves and Reviews

“Thunderously good.  There is a pace to this story, a beating pulse that drives it forward with every word and every page. Once you start this story there is no turning back.”

– Huffington Post

"Mullen unfolds his multifaceted plot with a sure hands and lively characterization. Lightning Men is far from predictable and rich with sociological and emotional detail." 

– The Wall Street Journal

"Black vs. white doesn't begin to cover the complexity of the diverse relationships in this sharply observed novel." 

– New York Times Book Review

"Mullen expands the boundaries of crime fiction, weaving in eye-opening details drawn from our checkered history." 

– Chicago Tribune

"Morally complex and boasting more finely drawn characters, this outstanding follow-up to Darktown deepens Mullen's portrait of pre-civil rights America and deserves a place on every suspense reader's list." 

– Library Journal

“Mullen again brilliantly combines a suspenseful plot with a searing look at a racist south,” 

– Publishers Weekly

Tense and heated suspense envelop Thomas Mullen's second in his Darktown series. Lightning Men is a lit fuse about to go off at any time. 

– Mystery Scene Magazine

"a keen reminder that American racism has a long, ugly, hateful tradition and that we still have a lot of work to do rooting it out and destroying it."

– A Bookish Type

"strikes a frighteningly current note,"

– Literary Hub (lithub.com)

“Certain books have the ability to crawl deep inside of a reader, to force one to live in that place amongst the author's vibrant characters, and occasionally to even inhabit one's dreams. Lightening Men is one of those novels - do not miss reading this book, trust me.” 

– LAURIE'S LIT PICKS

“For readers who loved the first installment in Thomas Mullen’s critically acclaimed Darktown series, September 12 is your lucky day. The second installment, Lightning Men, is here.” 

– Bookish

"Mullen does a masterful job layering emotional turmoil."

– Atlanta Journal Constitution

"The story was ever moving and kept me on my toes. I was rarely bored." 

 

– UP ALL NIGHT BOOK ADDICT BLOG

"Not only is this story a good one, but it is highly recommended!'

– Char's Horror Corner

"Hard-boiled. Explosive. Riveting. Timely! "

– JUDITH COLLINS BLOG

"This is an impressive series."

– THE BOWED BOOKSHELF

"The world Mullen so carefully creates in these pages will be familiar  the readers of Jim Thompson, P.D. James and,  especially James Ellroy, a world full of compromises for where there's nevertheless a wide, almost evangelical divide between good and evil. Lightning Men is even more engrossing but it's terrific predecessor."

– Open Letters

Best Crime Novels of 2017 

– New York Times Book Review

"Lightning Men [is] even better than Darktown, which is saying something."

– Sarah Weinman, The Crime Lady

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