Review by John for: Our Man in the Dark ~ by Rashad Harrison
Set during the mid-1960s, a dark historical fiction novel centered around the FBI’s attempts to infiltrate the civil rights movement and to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
About: John Estem is a bookkeeper in Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Physically crippled by polio and mentally crippled by his harsh, domineering father, Estem has grown into a complex character – despite being smart he always feels underappreciated and overlooked, and consequently he has developed an aloof, superior attitude. He’s desperate to make a good impression in the SCLC, but is kept firmly in his place by his boss, who is part of the “inner circle”. He is even more desperate to make a good impression on his lifelong sweetheart, but she continues to rebuff him in favor of a seedy nightclub owner and gangster.
When the opportunity presents itself, Estem embezzles a large amount of money from the SCLC, supposedly with the intention of funding a new civil rights initiative in the Chicago area. But in no time at all, he has spent most of the money on clothes, a new car and women, trying to prove to the world that he is someone of substance. He then gets reeled in by two FBI agents, on a mission from J. Edgar Hoover to infiltrate the SCLC. By convincing him that their goal is to root out communist activities and influences, they are able to persuade Estem to secretly work on their behalf - but it soon becomes clear that their real objective is something more destructive. Meanwhile Estem also becomes beholden to the violent nightclub owner and starts secretly working for him too.
Despite having multiple bosses exploiting his ego and his weaknesses, Estem tries to figure out how to come out ahead, while also helping to protect Dr. King from his many enemies and from those who want to maintain the status quo. This is not easy – the revered Dr. King is all too human and has his own weaknesses that threaten his moral leadership.
John’s Thoughts: This is an interesting, clever and well-written story. While it is a work of fiction, it is apparently based on a strong foundation of facts, some of which are only recently coming to light. It certainly feels true to its time and setting, and I came away feeling I had a much better understanding of some of the circumstances and events of that era.
The story that Harrison weaves is indeed a dark one – the book’s cover labels it “noir” and that certainly fits the bill. Despite being based around one of the leading moral lights of the twentieth century, the story is full of cynicism, corruption, exploitation, damaged people and twisted deeds. It seems like all of the main characters are flawed and are using other people to get what they want. But one of the strongest things about the book is the characters. They are richly developed, interesting, conflicted and believable. Not very nice mind you, but believable.
Somewhat ironically for me, while the complex characters are a highlight of the book, the fact that Estem is so flawed did detract from my enjoyment of the read – I wanted to root for him but he kept on disappointing me with his actions and thoughts. It’s difficult to empathize with someone you don’t like or respect. To an extent the same thing applied to Dr. King. Do not expect to see a squeaky clean picture of a saintly and heroic figure. Noir indeed. This one is not for readers who are looking for escapism or idealism.
The book is well-paced, engrossing, and an easy read. It has a strong plot and plenty of suspense to keep the reader enthralled. I’d rate it 3.5 stars – it would have been 4 but for some aspects of the ending that left me a little puzzled, feeling liked I’d missed something. I’d thoroughly recommend this to anyone who likes historical fiction or is particularly interested in the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s.
This book review is part of a blog tour. Our host’s logo, on the right, links to the book’s designated page at TLC Book Tours. For your convenience and other reviews for Our Man in the Dark link to three below:
Thanks for reading.