Book review: From Aya de Leon, a brilliant thriller that exposes the FBI’s illegal tactics

Set in the East Bay, a young Black FBI lawyer is told to investigate a small group of eco-activist teens led by a charismatic Black man. Is the group really dangerous?

Aya de Leon. Photo: Pete Rosos

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the American intelligence establishment ran amok. Until brought up short in 1975 by the Church Committee hearings, the CIA roamed the planet, eliminating “Communist” leaders through assassination and economic sabotage from Iran to Guatemala to the Congo. Domestically, the FBI undermined activist movements both Black-led and white with undercover spies, agents provocateurs, and, yes, assassination, too. The FBI operated under the rubric of a program code-named COINTELPRO. But there was no Church Committee to halt the FBI’s illegal tactics. Did COINTELPRO ever end? In her blockbuster new thriller, A Spy in the Struggle, Berkeley literary luminary Aya de Leon raises the question. And she doesn’t like the answer. You won’t, either.

A reluctant agent for the FBI

Yolanda Vance ended up in the FBI as a last resort. At the New York firm where she worked in corporate law, she had blown the whistle on the partners’ insider trading scheme. Now no other law firm would hire her, her degree from Harvard Law notwithstanding. In desperation, she joined the FBI in New Jersey. But her dream of practicing law for the government doesn’t last long.

Soon after joining the Bureau, Yolanda is transferred to the counter-terrorism squad in San Francisco. There, she is to infiltrate a “black identity extremist group” that poses a threat to a major Pentagon contractor. Yolanda is African-American. She had attended a women’s college located adjacent to the contractor’s research center in the East Bay, and she’d worked with teenagers as a volunteer. Yolanda has no choice. Untested rookie or not, she’s on her way back to the East Bay. And when a superior informs her about COINTELPRO as a way to explain how dire is the threat, he fails to mention the FBI’s illegal tactics.

Eco-activist teenagers confront a defense contractor

Yolanda’s target is artfully named Red, Black and GREEN! It is, in fact, a small group of eco-activist teens led by a charismatic African-American man and a couple of other adults. The FBI emphasizes how RBG threatens the nation’s security because it’s drawing unwelcome attention to the biotech company Randell Corporation. The distraction is slowing down work on a project for the military. Yolanda, daughter of a Bible-thumping preacher in Georgia and a corporate lawyer by choice, is inclined to believe everything the Bureau tells her. Which leads her to discount claims by RBG’s leader about COINTELPRO’s shameful history. But from the outset, she does wonder how a tiny group of teenagers could actually threaten a major defense contractor.

A Spy in the Struggle by Aya de León (2020) 293 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Might this be termed a battlefield conversion?

It soon becomes clear just how RBG threatens Randell Corporation. A young African-American woman—a Randell employee—has been discovered dead in an alley with a syringe of heroin dangling from her arm. But it’s clear that the woman had never been a heroin addict and, in any case, had been clean and sober for years. As RBG mobilizes a growing protest movement demanding answers from the company, Yolanda gradually starts to wonder whether she’s on the right side. And as events play out, culminating in a police riot, escalating evidence of the FBI’s illegal tactics, and multiple attempts on Yolanda’s life, we gradually learn the terrible truth. This is, in a sense, Yolanda’s coming of age, and it’s beautiful to behold.

About the author

Aya de Leon teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Although she first gained critical attention for her spoken word poetry, de León turned to writing novels in 2013 in addition to shorter pieces that have appeared online and in many leading periodicals. She has won multiple awards for the four books in her Justice Hustlers series. De León holds a B.A. from Harvard and an MFA from Antioch University.

This review originally appeared on Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books, which has hundreds of reviews. Check out Mal’s list on Good Books by Berkeley writers.