Benjamin Boulden

Smoke Kings
by Jahmal Mayfield
Melville House, February 2024, $19.99

Jahmal Mayfield’s debut novel Smoke Kings is a slash-and-burn thriller seeping raw emotion, tension, and good intent gone bad. When Darius, a promising young black teenager enrolled to attend Rutgers, is brutally murdered without any obvious reason other than blatant, hateful racism, his older brother, Joshua, and his cousin, Nate, make a pact for revenge. They form a political action committee with their friends Rachel and Isiah to support minority political candidates across the country. The PAC is really a cover for their extracurricular activities, which is identifying, kidnapping, and forcing the descendants of the perpetrators of past racial violence to pay reparations to the descendants of the victims of that violence.

The quartet believe punishing those who have gained an advantage from past racism will balance the scales for Darius’s death and benefit minority, especially Black, communities. But with each successful operation, Nate, the team’s de facto leader, becomes more and more reckless and violent until his rage flares and sends a planned kidnapping into chaos. Afterwards, the group finds itself in a moral quandary and what seemed so obviously right when they began is seeming less certain. Things get worse when a nasty white supremacist gang and a former Alabama cop turned private eye track them down.

Smoke Kings is that rare thriller where the emotional impact of the story and characters is as important as the suspense. The tensions between the characters, particularly between Nate and Isiah add texture and realism. The story deals adroitly with cultural racism in the United States, never shirking from diverse perspectives about its causes and solutions. But Smoke Kings is, at its heart, a scorching thriller with twists and turns, secrets, character damnations and character redemptions, that will keep the most jaded reader turning its pages deep into the inky stillness of the night.