The outcry this fall over a paraphrased inscription at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall proved that taking artistic license with the memory of the civil rights icon is risky business. But Rashad Harrison deftly negotiates this challenge in his first novel, “Our Man in the Dark.”
A noir thriller set amid the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta during the summer of 1964, “Our Man in the Dark” centers on the fictional character of John Estem, a bookkeeper for the organization. Estem is a nobody dying to be somebody. He joined the movement not only to effect social change but to make his name by becoming one of the first black CPAs in the country. For that to happen, he needs to win the favor of his arrogant mentor, Aaron Gant.
To get noticed, Estem plans to start a civil rights initiative of his own in Chicago, but he steals $10,000 from the SCLC as seed money. Those corrupt plans quickly go awry when a couple of FBI agents corner him and use their knowledge of the crime to bully him into spying on the organization.
Unfortunately, Estem has already dropped some of that stolen cash on a new Cadillac Fleetwood and a night out at a joint called Count’s, “a red velvet Ferris wheel of any vice imaginable.” So he has no choice but to start singing for the feds. Then it gets worse: Gant wises up to the missing money, and Estem is forced back to the club to persuade the ruthless Count to float him a loan.
It doesn’t come cheap.
“Our Man in the Dark” delights in a cast of “agents, gangsters, and preachers” spitting hard-boiled lines in the kind of gritty spaces you’d expect from a writer who calls Easy Rawlins his favorite fictional hero. For example, when Estem’s not at Count’s club or on some ill-advised caper, he spends evenings alone, laid back with his smokes “and a bottle of Thunderbird — hobo’s lemonade.”
But what sets the novel apart is Harrison’s clear-eyed treatment of Martin Luther King Jr., who figures prominently in the narrative. Rather than an exercise in hero-making, Harrison’s MLK is thoroughly human. His civic miracles are atonement for personal shortcomings, particularly marital infidelity. “In his selfless contribution to this country,” Estem says, “we are witnessing a grand display of self-flagellation.”
Still, Harrison manages to keep the memory of King above it all. Late in the novel, as he compares himself to the civil rights leader, Estem laments, “I never believed in humanity as he did.” The same might be uttered by any of us.
Wilwol is a Washington area writer.
“Our Man in the Dark”
By Rashad Harrison
Atria. 304 pp. $25