The Best Book I Read This Month: Darktown, by Thomas Mullen


It's early in the month to be posting this, but there is no way anything else I read this month will top Darktown by Thomas Mullen. It left me breathless.

Set in Atlanta in 1948, the story follows two of the Atlanta Police Department's first African American officers (Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith) and one white rookie (Denny Rakestraw) as they try to solve the murder of a young black woman, a murder that everyone else wants swept under the rug. All three main characters are compelling, and I look forward to following their story in Mullen's sequel, Lightning Men.

What really knocked me out about Darktown, though, was the atmosphere. This is not a light book. Even calling it noir would be a disservice. Every page captured the oppressive heat and humidity of that Atlanta summer. Every page captured the unrelenting, oppressive racism of 1948 Atlanta. Every word felt a hair's breadth away from violence. This is definitely fiction that brings history to life. There were spots so intense, I had to put the book down and take a few deep breaths. But then I picked it right up again because it was so compelling.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr

First, a disclaimer: my choice for this month is not the best book I read in terms of quality of writing. It is, however, the book that provoked the strongest reaction. In actuality, I still haven't decided whether I like the book. But  the fact that I finished all 592 pages despite my frustrations surely says something.


Surrender, New York is a mystery centered on the deaths of "throwaway," or abandoned, teenagers. It is set in upstate New York, in the fictional Burgoyne County (which is supposedly located in the environs of Albany, near Rensselaer County). The mystery, itself, was one of the better aspects of the book. It was intricate and well-plotted, with some nicely executed twists and turns. The characters--well, the supporting characters--were colorful and their loyalties not always clear. (I like stories and characters that live in the gray areas.) The main character, however, felt flat. More about him later.

I picked up the book based on the jacket copy. I adored Carr's The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness, which centered on a psychologist named Laszlo Kreizler and the development of what we now call forensic psychology in the dawn of the twentieth century. So when I read that Surrender, New York was a contemporary "sequel" to the Kreizler books, I grabbed it. Much to my disappointment, the connection to Kreizler was no more than a gimmick, not much better than name-dropping. It felt forced, and I feel duped. The story would have been just as good--maybe even better--without it. The Kreizler connection simply allowed the author to use his main character (Trajan Jones) to pontificate on everything he (Carr) thinks is wrong with modern law enforcement and forensic science. (He has particular venom for CSI and similar television programs.) This single-minded focus made Jones feel flat as a character, despite Carr's attempts to make him seem otherwise (amputee, cancer survivor, ill-advised love affair, pet cheetah).

Jones's pontifications often took the form of long passages of expository dialogue, another of my frustrations with the book. I found my eyes glazing over and my attention wandering during the especially long ones. Shortening, or even eliminating, many of these passages would have made for a much tighter story.

Carr also displayed a tendency for some rather amateur-level foreshadowing. More than once, I read something along the lines of "Much later, I realized the importance of so-and-so's words." My God, man, let me as the reader realize that importance for myself! Let me figure out the connections on my own! That's what makes a good mystery work.

So, while I recommend The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness wholeheartedly, I am not sure I can do the same for Surrender, New York.

In Memoriam

I think that I shall never see

a poem lovely as a tree.

      ---Joyce Kilmer


RIP giant shade tree. Thank you for giving me 13 years of shade, and for falling away from the house instead of into it. 


A New Look

When I chose change as my word of the year, I had no idea what changes the Universe had in store for me. I simply had a feeling that this would be a year of change. Some changes, I anticipated--such as my job change. Others, not so much--such as having to change doctors because mine left her practice.

In recent weeks, I've been working toward changing houses. I've been cleaning and purging room after room after room. (Goodwill either loves me or cringes every time I pull up to their donation door.) I'm developing an appreciation for minimalism.

This design change on my website is part of that. I'd kept the previous design in place for three years, an eternity on the Internet. It was time for a change. I wanted a simple, clean design. I played with a dozen templates until I found the one I wanted. This one is called Wells, which also happens to be the name of my alma mater. I don't know if that's a sign it was meant to be, or if the Universe delights in irony as much as I do.

I do know that this design reflects where I'm at in my life and my head at the moment. It may last a month, a year, or three years. It depends on when I'm ready for another change.