Everyone’s trying not to get caught in Rashad Harrison’s novel Our Man In The Dark, which follows the progress of an informant selling the truth about Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle. Bearing a limp from a childhood bout with polio, Atlanta native John Estem hopes to be an accountant someday, and in the meantime, he yearns to be plucked into the higher echelons of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference instead of being governed by the seen-and-not-heard ethos of his boss Aaron Gant, who already has King’s ear. When Estem’s proposal for a field office in Chicago is shot down, he embezzles $10,000 from the SCLC coffers to impress Candy, a lounge singer he’s been infatuated with since college; he only finds out he’s been caught when two shadowy men come to his rescue during a run-in with Candy’s boyfriend and his friends. The help comes at a high price: The men are FBI agents who assign Estem to monitor King and report on who he’s meeting beyond their prying eyes. What Estem discovers about his idol is more damaging than Estem wants to believe, but he clings to the idea that he can gain King’s trust without alienating the agents and losing the protection they can offer him.
Based on recently unearthed records of FBI surveillance of King and the SCLC, Harrison’s debut brings down the harshest judgment not on its boldface names—whom it spares a few seamy exploits—but on the man who wants to be one of them. (In Harrison’s depiction, King’s major weakness is a fondness for using platitudes to break up blocks of contemplative silence.) While Estem wavers between portraying himself as trapped into disloyalty and cloaking his own greed in the altruistic desire to push the movement forward, Our Man In The Dark reaches a conclusion about him far earlier: He’s just as unable to explain himself as the people around him are unable to satisfy his ambitions, and his lack of guilt makes him no better than the common thugs he perceives as out to trip him up.
When it finally becomes impossible to stay in the good graces of Gant, King, the FBI, and the gangsters all at the same time, and an absurd twist has him fleeing for his life, Estem’s failure to understand why anyone, including King, holds onto loyalty at the cost of personal safety causes him to contradict himself. Having betrayed and been betrayed, he still asks himself what he could have done to make his name shine a little brighter. But that’s just one of many suspicious shadows in a bright legacy.