A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Tracing Jamaica’s bloody history via A Brief History of Seven Killings

Having finished Marlon James’ Booker Prize winning novel I became obsessed with finding out who the fictionalised characters in the book relate to in real life. So here’s a handy character cheat sheet and a brief history of how I got there. Spoilers.

A Brief History of Seven Killings opens with a list of 72 characters. One of them is obviously drawn from a real life source: The Singer — Reggae superstar of the world. The others are not as obvious to any reader without a deep knowledge of Jamaican history (me). So I set off to find out who these characters related to in real life, if anyone, and how many liberties Marlon James had taken in his rendering of them.

Finding Josey Wales

I started with the novel’s most fascinating character, the Copenhagen City gangster with a penchant for the Wild West called Josey Wales. I couldn’t map Wales to a real life counterpart for some time, but once I started pulling the thread, the whole story of Kingston’s gangland started to unravel in front of me.

After A Brief History

The book leaves us in a world where Josey Wales is dead, killed in a prison fire while awaiting extradition to the USA on drug and murder charges. James builds on the real world intrigue around Coke’s death, creating a taut final sequence where the druglord’s death is anything but suspicious. As Jim Brown’s real lawyer said:

The Assassination Attempt

In her first hand account of that night, British journalist and Bob Marley biographer Vivien Goldman directly influenced one of the key scenes in the book: “One brandished two automatics like he was Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come. They fired round after round, the sound deafening as the kitchen became a battlefield. The Wailers and their militant Dread posse were caught off guard. Indeed, even though this was the moment Bob had been dreading, when the shock came, he froze. Everything went into slow motion. He felt something push him, and he fell down only later did he realise it was streetwise Don Taylor, raised working the volatile bars and brothels of the Kingston waterfront. The bullet aimed at Bob’s heart instead smashed into his upper arm.”

Loose Ends

Of course there are characters that are impossible to map to the real world.

The Cheat Sheet:

The Singer, reggae superstar of the world — Bob Marley
Josey Wales, head enforcer, don of Copenhagen City, 1979–1991 — Lester Lloyd Coke/Jim Brown
Eubie, head enforcer, Storm Posse, Queens/Bronx — Vivian Blake
Peter Nasser, politician, strategist — Ed Seaga
Alex Pierce, journalist, Rolling Stone — New Yorker writer Mattathias Schwartz
Papa-Lo/Raymond Clarke, don of Copenhagen City, 1960–1979 — Claudius Massop
Shotta Sherrif/Roland Palmer, don of the Eight Lanes, 1975–1980 — Aston ‘Bucky Marshall’ Thompson
Bill Bilson, journalist, the Jamaica Gleaner — possibly Gleaner senior reporter Gary Spaulding

Tech journalist and travel enthusiast. Recently drove from Vancouver to NYC with my brother Ted in a 2001 converted Ford Windstar.

Tech journalist and travel enthusiast. Recently drove from Vancouver to NYC with my brother Ted in a 2001 converted Ford Windstar.