Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Spook Who Sat by the Door, appearing at the end of a decade in which Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were extremely popular, is on one level a parody of the spy genre, showing how easily an outsider can manipulate the espionage establishment when it thinks it is putting him in his place. Freeman’s snobbish tastes in cars, clothes, and music recall those of Fleming’s 007. More significant, however, Greenlee’s novel grows out of the black fiction tradition of the 1960’s, sharing the angry seriousness of James Baldwin and John A. Williams, the satirical thrust of Ishmael Reed, and the thriller elements of Chester Himes.

Greenlee’s novel was published the same year as two other tales of black avengers with revolutionary intentions: Williams’s Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light and Edwin Corley’s Siege. All three books capture the black militant fervor of the period and represent a departure from the approach of a writer such as Baldwin, who had appealed in his fiction to whites, trying to touch their hearts and coax them into supporting social change. A writer such as Greenlee, on the other hand, makes it clear that African Americans must be the authors of their own liberation and must be willing to triumph by any means necessary.

The violent, militant tone of his book resulted in its being rejected by several American publishers before being accepted in England. Upon its American publication a few months after it appeared in England, its combination of action, humor, and political commitment helped it develop a following as a cult novel.