A Spy in Canaan: How the FBI Used a Famous Photographer to Infiltrate the Civil Rights Movement
By Marc Perrusquia. (Melville House, 349 pages, $28.99.)
Photographer Ernest Withers (1922-2007) snapped some of the most memorable images of the civil rights strife of the 1960s, including this book’s cover photo of striking Memphis garbage haulers wearing “I AM A MAN” signs and the courtroom shot of Emmett Till’s great-uncle pointing to the boy’s killers. Gifted and savvy, Withers had access to the movement’s leaders — and to their strategies and secrets. None knew that he also worked for the FBI as a paid “ghetto informant.” His double life came to light in 2013, when the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper wielded the Freedom of Information Act to wrench disturbing documents from the FBI.
“A Spy in Canaan,” by Commercial Appeal investigative reporter (and former Minnesotan) Marc Perrusquia, is a meticulously documented, finely written account of Withers’ life and times and of how his duplicity came to light. Withers’ story is fascinating and troubling, that of a man who regularly displayed courage and treachery.
Even more important, it is a damning portrait of FBI tactics in an era marked by intense social upheaval. “It is not my intention to erode the memory of Withers, nor to reduce him,” Perrusquia writes. “He will forever remain a Memphis hero. Instead, my hope is that [his story] will help fill in many of the gaps that still exist in the twin histories of civil rights and government surveillance.” This remarkable book more than succeeds in that quest.
Give Me Your Hand
By Megan Abbott. (Little, Brown, 352 pages, $27.)
Gillian Flynn may have abandoned publishing for Hollywood, but Megan Abbott is still here for us, delivering twisteroo thrillers rooted in women’s relationships with one another.
“Give Me Your Hand” shifts between the present and a decade ago, when two brilliant high schoolers’ intense bond was severed by Diane burdening Kit with a shocking confession. They reconnect, reluctantly, when both are hired to work on a scientific research project. Early on, Abbott hints at the possibility of a Leopold/Loeb situation, where the women bring out the worst in each other, or a “Single White Female” deal, where one insinuates her way into the other’s life, but she chooses a fresher, more compelling route.
When someone turns up dead, the focus shifts to Big Secrets, specifically what a secret costs the person who tells it and the person who is stuck knowing it. Diane’s confession has shaped both of their lives in the intervening years, and it plays a major role in their relationship with their genius but vaguely threatening boss, Dr. Lena Severin. Not at all vague is that Abbott considers Severin to be a slithery character. Where there’s a spot for one snake metaphor, Abbott generally inserts about five of them for good measure.
Abbott’s overinsistence on that metaphor is a rare misstep in a novel that is as compassionate as it is gripping. It’s a page-turner, for sure, but it’s also a plea for better research into women’s health issues and for mercy on behalf of those troubled souls whose brains can’t “work out how to live in this world.”