Review: The Bishop’s Pawn by Steve Berry

The Bishop's Pawn by Steve Berry is the 13th book in the Cotton Malone series (available March 20, 2018).

Steve Berry is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author who has more than 20 million books in print, translated into 40 languages. These include 13 novels featuring protagonist Cotton Malone as well as four standalones. He and his wife are co-founders of the History Matters foundation, which is dedicated to historical preservation; Berry also sits on the Smithsonian Libraries Advisories Board. His newest work, The Bishop’s Pawn, is an origin story of sorts that explores the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on its 15th anniversary.

Present Day: “How ironic, I think, that this all started with a murder, and now it appears it might end with another.” This internal thought begins the prologue, which finds former Justice Department agent and current antiquarian bookseller Cotton Malone inside Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic childhood home under cover of darkness. He’s there at the behest of an old acquaintance (their reunion is all but inevitable); though not a stranger, this person is no friend, either—as evidenced by the fact that he’s armed with a gun and intends to use it. The one question that remains is: on whom? Of course, readers will have to wait for that answer as the narrative shifts back in time.

18 Years Ago: Though a licensed attorney (“A good one in my opinion”) in the state of Georgia, Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone hasn’t joined a law firm. Instead, he’s joined the U.S. Navy, where he’s currently a lieutenant commander assigned to the Judge Advocate General’s corps at the naval station in Mayport, Florida. While off-base doing surveillance for a friend, Cotton—also a certified diver—is involved in a deadly shootout that lands him in jail. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he is quickly released through the intervention of the Justice Department’s Stephanie Nelle, who professes her admiration of his reputed traits: skill and discretion. Having done Cotton a solid, she expects a favor in return—and he’s more than happy to oblige.

What at first appears to be a relatively straightforward assignment—the recovery of a super rare and extremely valuable 1933 Double Eagle coin, thought to be stolen from the Philadelphia mint before being smelted and temporarily resting at the bottom of the sea—becomes infinitely more complicated when Cotton is attacked and nearly killed. After making off with a black waterproof case, he discovers that it actually holds documents bearing the title BISHOP’S PAWN. Though repeatedly cautioned/threatened not to read the files (some of which are reproduced in the book), Cotton—who feels entitled to understand their contents before turning them overindulges his curiosity. What he finds is a top-secret government record chronicling the means, motives, and movements of Eric Galt, aka James Earl Ray, in the months leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

With the understanding that he was intentionally misled in his mission comes the awareness that he, too, has become a pawn in somebody’s game. Indeed, factions of the Justice Department and FBI (among others)—who are at war over possession of the files—will stop at nothing to ensure that long-buried secrets remain hidden. Whether or not that’s warranted is up for debate.

The exploits that ensue offset the story’s more cerebral components and are representative of more traditional thriller fare. Consequently, action sequences come fast and furious and often involve elaborate chase scenes where characters are put at risk; though undeniably suspenseful (and a veritable travelogue of Florida—including Disney World), the sheer quantity begins to stretch credulity. (How many lives does Cotton Malone have in this one book alone? His allies should be so lucky.) 

That Ray’s status as a “lone gunman” without compatriots is challenged—much like alleged assassins Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan—is not news; in fact, the King family took to his defense in later years, spearheading a campaign to both exonerate him and prove that the crime resulted from a conspiracy. (Ray, who initially confessed to authorities but later recanted, died in 1998; Berry does not dismiss his complicity.) Neither is knowledge of J. Edgar Hoover’s hatred for King or his use of the FBI to amass numerous files on the civil rights leader in the hopes of nullifying and/or publicly discrediting him, if not something entirely more sinister. What is noteworthy is Berry’s interpretation of the facts, based on the personal and private lives of King and the cultural climate at the time of his death, to explain both the lead up to and aftermath of that fateful day at the Lorraine Motel.

Dubbed Cotton Malone’s first case, The Bishop’s Pawn is a prequel to the series’ earlier titles. As such, it delves into the character’s backstory, revealing a troubled marriage, an underwhelming career, and a burgeoning alliance with Stephanie Nelle that will both exhilarate and exasperate for years, and books, to come. Thus, the beginning of a redemptive journey. Berry employs the use of first-person narration fully throughout (his other works are written in multiple perspectives), which lends intimacy and immediacy to the proceedings; it’s a fitting approach, given how this particular investigation mirrors the complexities of Malone himself, who still has layers that are ripe for revelation.

The Bishop’s Pawn breathlessly melds history with mystery, culminating in a conclusion that may prove as controversial as it does compelling. As always, Steve Berry has done his due diligence, offering readers fact-based fiction that should provoke thought without sacrificing the sanctity of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.

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