(The Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN, April 4, 1968 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King)
For a retired historian picking up a Steve Berry novel is like revisiting an old friend. Berry’s central character Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone, lawyer, former member of an elite Justice Department group, pilot, and naval officer, leads the reader through interesting plot lines within the context of fascinating historical palates. In his latest iteration of Cotton Malone, Berry returns the reader to Malone’s early career by examining his first mission that dealt with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Era. We are exposed to a great deal of information that is not available in Berry’s other novels, and in THE BISHOP’S PAWN the author fills in the blanks that have existed throughout the series. The subject of Berry’s latest effort is very timely as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King at the hands of James Earle Ray.
(Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy)
THE BISHOP’S PAWN is different from all other books in the Malone series. Berry presents his story in the first person, something he has never done. Usually Berry narrates his stories through multiple characters and viewpoints, but in this case the single narrator creates an inviting immediacy. Further, it is a much more personal approach as we learn a great deal more about Malone’s background and his relationships, particularly with Stephanie Nelle, who would become his boss at the Magellan Billet, a special investigative unit within the Justice Department. At the outset of the novel Nelle and Malone meet for the first time in a Jacksonville, Florida jail where Lt. Malone is being held as a suspect in a shooting while a member of the US Navy. Nelle offers Malone his first mission as she had pegged him correctly in that he was bored as a JAG officer in the Navy and this afforded him an opportunity to prove himself in a more challenging environment. Malone’s mission was to recover a waterproof box that contained what could be considered important historical files and a gold coin worth approximately $1 million in the area off Key West. This would be a pattern which would mark their relationship for many years to come as Nelle did not present the entire story leaving out details that could place Malone in a very precarious position.
Berry introduces a number of interesting characters from Juan Lopez Valdez, former FBI, CIA and possibly linked to James Earle Ray; the Reverend Benjamin Foster, who was present at the Lorraine Motel, the night Dr. King was assassinated and was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Coleen Perry, Rev. Foster’s daughter who is obsessed with the contents of the waterproof box and her father’s role in the civil rights movement; Tom Oliver, retired Deputy Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover who was in charge of COINTELPRO, Hoover’s counter-intelligence program developed to target groups that he believed were threats – especially “Black Nationalist” groups that had to be “neutralized; and Jim Jansen, former FBI who is a major impediment to Malone’s mission. These characters are all intertwined as the plot emerges – what is in the files in the waterproofed box? What role did the FBI possibly play in the assassination of Dr. King? How does the relationship between the FBI and the Justice Department fit? What are the agendas of each major character, particularly, Nelle, Foster, and Oliver?
Berry’s grasp of history is at its usual high level. His description of individuals, i.e., J. Edgar Hoover is quite accurate, especially his obsession with Dr. King and supposed communist influence over the Civil Rights Movement. Further, some of the documents Berry integrates into the dialogue are straight out of FBI files that became available years after Dr. King’s death that lend credence to conspiracy theories that have made the rounds for decades. It is clear that the FBI wants to eradicate any evidence that it was involved in the King assassination. But the problem that emerges is that there are remnants of the FBI of the 1960s that still influence policy, as opposed to the more open new generation of FBI bureaucrats who have a different approach to historical accuracy.
As is the case in all of his novels, Berry offers a writer’s not at the conclusion of the story that highlights what is considered factual history and what the author has made up employing his artistic license. The result is that Berry has created an intricate example of counterfactual history that may not be as farfetched as might appear at first glance.