In his novel set in 1950s Atlanta, Thomas Mullen borrows his title Lightning Men from Nazi Germany. In the prologue, Jeremiah, newly released from prison is told one of three things happen when a Negro is released from jail: (1) his family or friends pick him up, (2) the prison takes him by bus to the train where his people meet him. or (3) they give him about seventy-five cents and let the prisoner walk. By the time the prologue is finished, crime has begun and the writing has seized the reader.
The body of the novel has the police department chasing drugs and alcohol and solving murders while keeping a line drawn between the white and black officers with both groups wondering who among them are the corrupt. There’s a group of Columbians with the Nazi-style lightning bolt on their sleeves which now reappears on street signs. The policemen’s personal stories weave in and out and color their own hand at justice, giving hard choices between family and the law.
As tensions escalate over black families moving into “white” neighborhoods, Mullen draws a parallel: “‘Lightning men,’ the doughboys had called the SS troopers. But they were all lightning men. Not just the Columbians but the Klansmen, too, and the neighborhood association that had offered to buy Hannah’s house as if that were a legitimate, regular ol’ business arrangement shorn of threats.”
Such a tangle of multiple stories keep the reader on edge pondering if any satisfying ending can come of all this – and yet it does with an ending that left me shaking my head and saying, “I didn’t see that coming.”