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Our Man in the Dark: A Novel

Our Man in the Dark: A Novel

4.2 7
by Rashad Harrison

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A stunning debut historical noir novel about a worker in the civil rights movement who became an informant for the FBI during the months leading up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Feeling underappreciated and overlooked, John Estem, a bookkeeper for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), steals ten thousand


A stunning debut historical noir novel about a worker in the civil rights movement who became an informant for the FBI during the months leading up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Feeling underappreciated and overlooked, John Estem, a bookkeeper for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), steals ten thousand dollars from the organization. Originally planning to use the money to seed a new civil rights initiative in Chicago, he squanders the stolen funds.


To the bookkeeper’s dismay, the FBI has been keeping close tabs on Dr. King and his fellow activists—including Estem—for years. FBI agents tell Estem that it is his duty, as an American and as a civil rights supporter, to protect the SCLC from communist infiltration. The FBI offers Estem a stipend, but in case he has any thoughts about refusing the assignment, they also warn him that they know about the stolen money.

Playing informant empowers Estem, but he soon learns that his job is not simply to relay information on the organization. Once the FBI discovers evidence of King’s sexual infidelities, they set out to confirm the facts to undermine King’s credibility as a moral leader and bring down the movement. This timely novel comes in light of recent revelations that government informants had infiltrated numerous black movement organizations. With historical facts at the core of Our Man in the Dark, Harrison uses real life as a great inspiration for his drama-filled art.

Editorial Reviews

John Wilwol
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…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Harrison’s debut fuses fascinating history with a repellent protagonist and an implausible pulp plot. In 1964, John Estem is a bookkeeper at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. With his leg in a brace from surviving polio, an unhealthy fixation on a nightclub singer, and a penchant for prostitutes, Estem’s civil rights involvement is the only thing in his life that isn’t lonely or fractured. When his idea for a march is scuttled, Estem embezzles ,000 from the organization to fund the march himself, but squanders most of the money on clothes, women, and a Cadillac. In his compromised state, Estem is an easy mark for Mathis and Strobe, FBI agents who recruit him to inform on purported Communist infiltration of the SCLC. Estem takes a loan from “Count,” an underworld nightclub owner and the possessive boyfriend of a singer Estem pines for, allowing Estem to maintain his duplicities for a time. But it soon becomes clear that the FBI wants to use information about Dr. King’s personal life to discredit the civil rights movement, information Count is after as well for his own blackmail purposes, Estem turns the tables on his handlers. Harrison shows promise in his evocation of time and place, but Estem’s transformation from spineless embezzler to ruthless, reckless survivor who can outwit the FBI is less successful. He comes across as unpleasant and unbalanced, and given that he never seems more than minutes ahead of being exposed, his gutsy maneuvering late in the book seems especially unlikely. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
“Draws the reader in like metal shavings to a magnet.” —New York Journal of Books

“An entertaining work of historical fiction with a touch of the noir; readers who enjoyed Don Delilo’s Libra will appreciate.” —LIBRARY JOURNAL, REVIEW (9/23)

“The dark conclusion descends into powerful moral ambivalence about love, loyalty and family.” — KIRKUS REVIEWS, REVIEW (10/15)

“Harrison’s debut mystery offers a fascinating setting for his intriguing mix of fact and fiction.”— BOOKLIST, REVIEW (10/1)

“Absolutely great. I truly enjoyed every bit of it. The plot, the boldness of the intent, and the wonderful, wonderful writing. The characters were so true and real and new to the page. I’ll never forget any of them. I’m a big fan of this book and of this writer!”— Pearl Cleage, author of Just Wanna Testify

"Our Man in the Dark is smart, snappy and fascinating. As the child of civil rights activists, I applaud Rashad Harrison's wonderfully written debut and his examination of how an ordinary man ended up on the wrong side of history." —Tananarive Due, author of My Soul to Take and Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights

"Our Man in the Dark is an amazing story, amazingly told. Intrigue and sadness, race and Government, Dr. King and the FBI, foibles and loyalties — this is an ambitious novel that wraps its powerful arms around what it means to be an American. Bold, rhapsodic, and daring, Rashad Harrison has written a morally-engaged masterpiece."

–Darin Strauss author of Chang & Eng, The Real McCoy, and the National Book Critics Circle Award winning memoir Half a Life

“Rashad Harrison is one of the finest young writers I’ve come across. Our Man in the Dark, is gripping, filled with historical detail that puts the reader smack in the middle of the dark days of the fight for civil rights in the ’60s. His memorable characters, most of them morally challenged, pop off the page and his tale of intrigue and betrayal will keep you reading, always wanting more.”

— Charles Salzberg, New York Times Book Review and Esquire contributor, and author of Swann’s Last Song

“What a great voice [Rashad Harrison] is employing here…utterly assured, smart, witty, and incisive…the writing is strong and clear and dead on. What an invention John Estem is as a character….Most impressive is Estem’s deadpan, quietly understated narrative voice throughout…a cool, low tone that is extremely compelling…. He unfurls one revelation after another—about himself, King, the SCLC—as if his store of them is boundless, each more outrageous (and natural sounding) than the last. What an amazing story…and what an incredible amount of inventive energy [Harrison] is displaying. It’s brave and brilliant to bring Dr. King into the story as both icon and man—especially the latter—and to do it with such verve and ease.”

— Nicholas Christopher, author of The Bestiary, Veronica, and Somewhere in the Night

"[Harrison] is an excellent writer. His prose is...strong and assured and elegant and also quite beautiful when it needs to be. His stories are mysterious and powerful."

–Jonathan Ames, author of The Extra Man, and creator of the HBO series Bored to Death

Library Journal
Historical fiction is a genre that feels the constraint of realism, forcing the author to represent an alternate reality by developing the unheard thoughts of individual characters without straying too far from fact. In his debut novel, Harrison introduces us to the complex motivations behind John Estem, a civil rights worker with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) who turns FBI informant. Though not explicitly stated, the character is loosely based on Jim Harrison, the comptroller of the SCLC. As the plot unravels, Estem's motivations for turning informant are revealed as an individual conflict within the larger struggle for civil rights. Culminating in the death of Martin Luther King Jr., this novel explores the volatility of social change and the frailties of the human condition when enacting it. Harrison successfully demonstrates that fiction can use the past to comment on issues of contemporary concern. VERDICT An entertaining work of historical fiction with a touch of the noir; readers who enjoyed Don DeLillo's Libra will appreciate. [See Prepub Alert, 5/23/11.]—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
John Estem has stolen $10,000 from Martin Luther King Jr. It is 1964, and Estem has been hired by a Southern Christian Leadership Conference executive named Aaron Gant to audit the organization's books. The reactionary establishment wants to hang tax-evasion charges on King. Now Estem has uncovered an odd contribution and decided to pocket the money: "I took it because I could, and no one would ever suspect I was capable of it." An invisible man among high-powered personalities like Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and Gant, Estem wanted to impress Candice, a lounge singer in a dive called "Count's." Candy is also Count's girl. With money, Estem bought stylish clothes and a late-model Cadillac. A bundle of contrasts, Estem is arrogant and superior but self-conscious because of a leg brace; he's lonely for a woman's companionship but resentful because he feels patronized; and he's self-pitying and weak-willed but also intelligent and manipulative. And naive. The FBI monitors the SCLC closely, and Strobe and Mathis, agents working to fulfill Hoover's ambition of uncovering Communist influence in the group, catch Estem and extort him into spying. As with novels incorporating historical figures, readers might stumble over the contrast between public persona and fictional presentation. King's humanity is amplified by imagined conversations with Estem wherein King admits his sexual appetites, but King is also beautifully drawn as a questioning, vulnerable, lonely man consumed with his cause. Plot-reliant rather than literary, the narrative gains urgency through use of a present-tense, first-person point of view. The dark conclusion descends into powerful moral ambivalence about love, loyalty and family. Harrison's debut novel contemplates a nightmare inside a dream.

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Read an Excerpt


Night has come, and so have the shadows that once pulled me in against my will. I believed the promises made by those exaggerated figures that followed me, but I am no longer fooled by illusions. Their lies must stay outside. Up these darkened steps, and past that door, is the truth.

My flashlight leads me to the file cabinet. It isnt locked. There are many files inside, but one in particular intrigues me. Its labeled JEST in bold letters followed by a sequence of numbers. I open it to reveal a series of black-and-white photos. They show a man leaving a building, crossing a street, and alone inside a telephone booth. At first, I assume they are random individuals of no importance. But then I look closer. They are pictures of me.

I turn to cast my light on the doorway and then back to the photos. I scan them, imagining the clicking of a cameras shutter as I view each one. I try to make sense of them by placing them in order. The booth, the street, the building. Its the last one thats the most tellingit was taken as I left the bank. They were watching me from the beginning.

Atlanta: Summer 1964

I sit at my desk at the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, mulling over accounting records and figures. A few years ago, Martin was accused of tax evasionwhich is comical, since most of what he earns goes back into the movement. The man lives like a pauper. But we are trying to make sure it doesnt happen again. Gant has me sifting through the financial records to ensure that Martin hasnt received any compensation that cannot be accounted for.

I work with a particular column of numbers and notice the sum: fifty thousand dollars. A flash of warmth surges up my neck. This figure is an anomaly, but I dont suspect any wrongdoingat least not immediately. Though it troubles me to do so, I feel compelled to bring this to Gants attention.

Ill have to persuade him to see things as I see them, and that is a difficult task. His judgment of me is ruthless and immediate. Anything I question results in a questioning of me. I am exhausted by our exchange before it even begins.

He walks past my open office door in a well-scented hurry. He is one of those handsome men who know they are handsome. Tall, with a face sculpted out of Georgia clay, he has a strange way of using his looks to make you feel inferior. It does not help matters that, as I approach his perfect image, I am slowed by a permanent hobblemy reward for surviving a childhood bout with polio.

I watch Gant and his secretary walk swiftly down the hallway, but before I approach them, I go through my usual ritual of checking that my pant leg has not ridden up to reveal the stirrup of my brace; it creates an unattractive bulkiness under my trousers that annoys me to no end. I adjust my pants and smooth out the fabric so that it falls properly. I dont want anyone to be uncomfortable in my presence. Even FDR went through strained efforts to appear unaffected by polio. My coworkers shouldnt feel guilty about their ability to take gallant, even strides as they march alongside Dr. King, while I lurch through the corridors of the SCLC.

I struggle to catch up, asking the back of Gants head for a moment of his time, but he insists that hes in a hurry.

Mr. Gant. Please . . . I say, just five minutes.

They pause briefly; he asks Susan to grab him some coffee and then turns to me. Five minutes, Estem. If this is about your Chicago proposal, I havent looked over it or discussed it with Martin.

No, it isnt about that. Itswell, sir, I was going over the figures for the donations . . . and while Im sure this is probably minor

Your point?

A large sum of money, Mr. Gant. And I cant trace it to any source.

Perhaps an old friend of Kings who wants to remain anonymous?

There would still be a receipt of some sort.

John, the problem? I dont see it.

Mr. Gant, it cant appear that we

I dont have time to chase numerical phantoms. Estem, you should remember that we are looking for Martins personal transactions that might warrant attention.

Sir, it is my responsibility to

I know exactly what your responsibilities are. I made them very clear when I hired you.

Yes, Mr. Gant. Yes, and Im very grateful

Susan returns with his coffee. Mr. Gant, Dr. King is waiting for you in the conference room, she says.

Tell Martin Ill be there shortly. Are we finished here, Estem?

Maybe Dr. King could shed some light . . .

Ill try to mention it to him.

He enters the conference room, and I briefly peer in after him. Martin gives me a knowing nod before Gant quickly closes the door behind him. Muffled sounds soon followgreetings, laughter, and friendly banter.

Its fine. This is the way Im used to being treated. I float around the SCLC like inconsequential vapor, only a vague innocuous presence, giving nothing and taking nothing. I crunch numbers. I stack paper. Occasionally, I move the stack from one end of my desk to the other. If it were not for the creak of my brace, I doubt anybody would know that Im here. When the secretaries and volunteers gather to form huddled islands of gossip and chatter, I foolishly linger at the edges, hoping to be invited ashore.

My conversation with Gant has left me desperate for a drink, but I need to see her just as much as I need the liquor. After work, I head to my usual nightspot, a bar called Counts.

The place is a red velvet Ferris wheel of any vice imaginable. Drink. Drugs. Sex. All of them unifying lures for this mixed bunch of seedy characters and squares searching for the cool. I have to hand it to Count: for a place run by a Negro, it does have a certain cosmopolitan feel. Mirrors, tinted Byzantium gold, surround the stone tables and leather booths that are better suited for sipping absinthe than bourbon. Counts is also marked by integrationbut its inchoate, one-sided, and gender-specific. Youll find colored girls with white men, most of whom are policemen. Their presence is meant to keep us safe, but the only things safe in this place are the secrets.

I used to wonder how a man working for the saintly organization of the saintly Dr. King could find himself in such a sinful place. But Im no saint although Im a good Christian, and even the best Christians are more familiar with sinners than saints.

The floor vibrates from the dancing patrons and the rolling beat coming from the band on the small stage. I walk along the bar, hoping that my limp appears to be more swagger than stagger. The woman singing with the band is Miss Candy, also known as Candice. She looks just like what her name impliesbad for you, but oh so good. Her singing is awful, but shes not up there for her voice. Shes like a sepia-tinted dream with fiery red lips flickering in the darkness. Her tight, knee-length dress covered with glittering amber sequins reminds me of a freshly poured glass of champagne. Her hair is pulled back into a tight chignon on the top of her head, la Josephine Baker. I like it that way.

I watch her hips sway to the final notes of the song, and the crowd applauds as she finishes. They clap for the band, for her hairstyle, and even for that dressfor everything except her singing. However, as she descends from the stage and makes her way through the crowd, some of their cynicism fades. She carries a good portion of her talent behind her, and the men nod appreciatively.

I raise my drink, a signal to her above the noisy gathering. She sees me at the bar and comes over.

John? She looks me over with the careful eyes of a fawn. Beads of sweat still linger on her flawless skin.

Great set tonight, I say.

Right. Thanks. She averts her eyes, looking away from my lie.

No, really. The crowd seemed to dig it.

John, I got the flowers you sent. Youve got to stop doing things like that. Weve already talked about this.

You didnt like them? Im not looking at her anymore. I stare down into the shadows by her ankles.

They were fine, but thats not the point . . .

Suddenly, white tapered pants and the shine of black patent leather interrupts the darkness. They belong to Count, the owner of the club.

Candy, he says.

I dont look up; his shoes are pointing at me in provocation. Count has warned me before about talking to Candy, and I dont want to press my luck. I can feel him hover over me, holding his cigarette as if it were a weapon.

Hows your job going? she asks.

Fine . . . making the world better for colored folks everywhere. I peer up at Count, but I miss his eyes and meet three circular scars on the side of his bald head. Hes proud of them. He must be. At least three times he has made a fool of death.

It must be exciting working so close to Dr. King.

True. I do work closely with Martin. Martin and I are close. Im the liaison to the financial assistant

Like a bookkeeper or something?

Right. A bookkeeper.

Cmon, Mama . . . my sugars gettin low, Count says, sending a cloud of smoke toward my face.

She gives him an unpleasant look. Ive got to run, she says to me. It was good seeing you. After placing a kiss on my forehead, she turns away, and Count guides her by the back of her neck through the crowd.

I turn back to the bar and order a martini, but the bartender gives me a shot of bourbon. It takes six more before I feel man enough to face the room and leave.

I return home that night, drunk and alone. I stand in front of the mirror talking to myself, practicing, awaiting my transition into a superman. Its a tough feat because of the bracea strange hybrid of leather and metal, a network of buckles and straps, like stirrup meets straitjacket. I notice, between the open spaces of leather, that the skin of my leg has taken on an ashen hue from the days wear, but I do not feel like going through the trouble of removing it just yet.

I go through this ritual after every defeat she serves my ego, analyzing and thinking of ways to improve myself, or at least my appearance. What is Candys attraction to Count? It cant be physical. His expensive clothes can only help him so much. Im no matinee idol, but with that pockmarked skin, he must shave with broken glass. A vain fellow like Count must have a roomful of mirrors. Someone as ugly as Count should only have bare walls. The torture she must endure, being mounted by that animal.

I go over to my nightstand and pick up evidence of Candys ill-fated attempt at a recording career: a dance single called Do the Gumdrop. She smiles from the record sleeve holding a large gumdrop the size of a melon above her left shoulder. Count had indulged her by starting a label where she was the only act. I place it on my phonograph, the needle hits the groove and, in a weak tinny voice, Candy instructs me to Do the Gumdrop, baby. Do it . . . Do it . . . Do the Gumdrop. I love her and have played her song many times, but I still find it hard to listen to.

Count has created an amusement park full of funhouse mirrors, a place where she can indulge in make-believe and see limitlessly different versions of herself. Trying to decipher what is real must make her dizzy and any attempt to escape futile.

The allure of money and its hold are undeniable. I would love to strut for her and let her have a glimpse of the man Ive been hiding away. I have tried persistence, but never money. Ive never tried it because Ive never had any. This is tragic considering that every day I track its movements. I know moneys habits, I know where it breeds, where it rests, and where it feeds, but it remains elusive. Like a frustrated hunter, I lose its scent somewhere. I look around my meager surroundings. No sign of it here. My apartment is almost unbearable. A simple one-room box. Ive made no attempt to decorate it. Part of me still senses that there are better things in store for me, and this is not where I want to leave my mark.

Moneyno; but power, or something like it, may be within my reach. My idea for a march in Chicago makes sense. Martin, Abernathy, and Young would bring me into the hierarchy once they saw that I was thinking about the long-term advantages for the movement and not just the colorless duties required of my job. Im just a hopeful pledge, but it could be my opportunity to join their exclusive fraternity. But obviously, Im being foolish to harbor such aspirations and optimism; Gant would never allow that to happen.

Itll be morning in a few hours, but Im not quite drunk enough to sleep so I go to work on my own supply.

I walk my scotch over to the window and light a cigarette. Looking out into the Atlanta night, black with heat, I take a drag and notice that the smoke has taken on a new characteristic. Behind the charcoal and stale tobacco mingled with the bite of menthol is a fourth note: the earthy smell of hand-worn bills.

2011 Rashad Harrison

Meet the Author

Rashad Harrison has studied writing at San Francisco State University and Columbia University. He received his MFA in creative writing from New York University where he was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow in fiction and taught creative writing. He and his wife currently live in Chicago and San Francisco. He is the author of Our Man in the Dark (2011) and The Abduction of Smith and Smith (2015).

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Our Man in the Dark 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
PeggyBLM More than 1 year ago
Got referred to this title by goodreads. It's pitched as "historical noir"--and there's enough in this book for fans of those genres to be more than satisfied--but Our Man in the Dark transcends most of the limitations of genre. Something new has been created here. John Estem is one the most unforgettable characters recently created.
MeandmyNook More than 1 year ago
Our Man in the Dark was very good book. Got referred from a friend. This book would br a great book for Book Clubs.
BookReflections More than 1 year ago
John Estem has led a life where he has been constantly ridiculed, teased, and disrespected. As a bookkeeper for the SCLC, he hopes to gain respect and participate the movement. Even here he is under-appreciated and ignored. Hoping to gain some self-respect and win the affections of his long-time friend, Candy, John steals money from the SCLC which starts a series of events where John can't be sure how is friend or foe. John finds himself working as an informant for the FBI and taking orders from a gangsta. Soon he's in over his head and unable to find the respect he so needed. After accepting this book for review, I became very intrigued with the noir style. After doing a bit of research I discovered that noir fiction is a type of crime story with a cynical twist where almost all the characters in the story are troubled and there is no hero figure. Morality and inhibitions are not strong points and a doom-like theme dominates. This story definitely fits the bill. I liked how the entire plot was unpredictable and their were plenty of twists and turns. After a while, I stopped trying to guess what would happen next. I had to to sit back and watch the drama unfold. None of the characters are especially loveable, or even likeable, which is consistent with the style. I found that I started to view John the same way many of the other characters did. I pitied him and found his actions to be quite naive and deplorable. While there was a lot of action especially toward the end of the book, I felt like I wanted more action in the earlier parts of the story rather than hear the same inner thoughts from John. His self-pity and thoughts about gaining respect were quite repetitive. Additionally, I thought the conversations between Dr. King and John were a bit stilted and out of place. They sounded too formal and a bit unrealistic. Overall, if you are interested in historical noir, I think you'll enjoy this dark read that brings many twists and surprises.
OhWake More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down. The author writers his characters so vividly and he puts so much detail into accurately describing 60's Atlanta. Although its historical fiction I found this book to be really educational about the civil rights movement from a different point of view. I highly recommend this book and am looking forward to more from this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well done to Rashad Harrison for his debut novel!! Hooked me instantly. I couldn't put it down. Each page was every bit as gripping and powerful as the next and the next and the next. Definitely a must read!! I can't wait to see what's next for this eloquently expressive up and coming wordsmith!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LevineDF More than 1 year ago
This is the book to read!! The characters are fascinating with complex motives at a time in our history where many things were not as they appeared. I was so moved by the end of the book, I wanted to keep reading.