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.
The novel centres around the real life assasination attempt on Bob Marley (aka The Singer) in 1976, but the narrative traces a broad circle around this event and imagines the surrounding characters and their motivations in ways only a novelist of James’ talents could.
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.
According to a piece by the Jamaican daily newspaper The Gleaner from June 2010: “Lester Lloyd Coke, alias ‘Jim Brown’, the architect of the [Storm Posse gang] dynasty, was not always the combative gunslinger of the Wild West he was reputed to be in the years leading up to his death.”
I had found Josey Wales. Lloyd Coke (a name so fitting for a drug kingpin that even James would have thought it to be too on the nose) was an infamous Jamaican gangster responsible for founding the violent Storm Posse drug smuggling gang out of the Tivoli Gardens ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica (wittily renamed Copenhagen City by James, as Tivoli Gardens is a famous theme park in Copenhagen, Denmark).
An article which really helps join up the dots between the real life characters in James’ novel appeared in the Jamaica Observer in September 2009. In it, Jim Brown’s vicious rise to power is charted via various, possibly apocrophyal acts of violence.
Scenes like Browns’ (aka Josey Wales) slaying of a bus driver, told from multiple points of view in the book, appear here in the newspaper: “The brutal slaying of a bus driver, who allegedly bad-mouthed Lester Coke in the aftermath of a traffic incident, showed that he wielded considerable power. The driver had apparently realised too late who he was bad-mouthing and made a mad rush for the Denham Town Police Station where he sought protection from police officers. But the cops could not save him; he was dragged from the police station by Jim Brown and his cronies who shot and stabbed him to death. Lester Coke was eventually charged for the murder but was acquitted after no witnesses turned up in court.”
The details of Wales’ daughter being killed are repeated like for like in the book: “Lester Coke’s daughter, known as ‘Mumpi’, was shot and killed during a gunfight in which her man was also killed. Mumpi was reportedly crouched over his body crying when his killers walked up to her and ended her life.” His son’s murder at the hands of rival gangsters while he is cycling into town is similarily portrayed in the novel.
These small details are dropped into James’ narrative in a way that allows the novelist to weave history and myth and create a world all of its own, one that resembled the real Jamaica, but where answers are easier to come by.
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:
“If you believe Jim Brown just burned to death, by accident, in his jail cell, you’ll believe in the tooth fairy,” said the lawyer. “The only thing I can tell you for sure-and I saw the body-is that Jim Brown is dead.”
As Newsweek put it:
“Jim Brown’s death may only fuel his myth. It is hard to explain how a jail cell could suddenly burst into deadly flame. Or why it took at least 15 minutes after the first alarm until his cell door could be released. Or why it took nearly two hours to get him to a hospital that is minutes away. During the inquest, one prisoner broke down and claimed he had been pressured to cover up for wardens who deserted their posts as Brown’s cell burned. The assumption in Kingston is that friends in the Shower Posse decided that he would be a better dead myth than a live witness in Florida.”
What we do know is that following his father’s death, on the day of his brother’s funeral, Christopher Coke stepped into the power vacuum left in Tivoli Gardens as the new don, a position he maintained until 2010, when Barack Obama’s administration demanded he be extradited to face drug charges.
As police prepared to storm Tivoli Gardens to arrest Coke, the ghetto prepared to go to war, protecting their leader in what became known as the Tivoli Incursion, or, as New Yorker journalist Mattathias Schwartz dubbed it in his 2011 piece: A Massacre in Jamaica.
I had found Alex Pierce, the Rolling Stone journalist whose New Yorker piece entitled A Brief History of Seven Killings eventually gives the novel its title on page 654. Schwartz even matched the physical description: “Look ‘pon the man hair. You woman make you leave the house like that? And here me did understand that all white man shave.” (p.636) I even remember reading the piece back in 2011.
Finally, there is the architect of Josey Wales’ downfall: Eubie. According to what I can find, Eubie is Vivian Blake, the Shower Posse leader responsible for flooding New York’s poorest areas with crack cocaine in the 1980s. Both Eubie and Blake are privately educated, and apart from a few novelistic flourishes by James, such as a penchant for pocket squares and a New Yorker subscription, the characters match.
A passage from a Jamaica Observer article reads: “Blake was responsible for the US-based operations of the gang, while Lester Coke held things together on local soil before he made his foray into the US and helped to set up cells of the Shower Posse in New York, Miami, Kansas City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities,” mirroring Eubie and Wales’ business arrangement in the novel.
Where James really goes out on a limb is in claiming that Eubie was responsible for Wales’ death. If Blake did take out Lloyd Coke he never managed to ascend to the very top of the gang in real life before eventually dying of a heart attack in 2010.
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.”
You can start to see where Goldman’s account, which also has a distinct ear for Jamaican patois, started setting off a chain of events in Marlon James’ prodigious imagination:
“The eerie quiet was broken when Burke heard Seeco’s wrenching shout outside their window. ‘Blood claat! Is Seaga men! Dem come fe kill Bob!’ That view was endorsed by word in the street, as passers-by said that before the ambulances and police arrived, they saw a car shoot out of the yard. But instead of driving uphill in the direction of University College Hospital, as might have been expected of any improvised transport for the wounded, the car headed downtown, straight toward the notorious Tivoli Gardens — the JLP headquarters, still a virtual no-go zone three decades on.”
‘I recognise one guy,’ mutters Gilly tersely. He won’t name names. ‘They came in with two guns blazing and I ran out thanks to the power of the Most High.’
The identity of the three gunman that stormed Marley’s Hope Road home on the day of the peace concert in 1976 is still not public knowledge, but in James’ imagination their motives are extremely complex, open to interpretation, but mainly political.
In what becomes the central moment of the book’s first section, Wales and his assembled gunman (now two cars of gunmen in a piece of novelistic exuberance) represent the JLP. Their targeting of Marley shows how The Singer had become an unwitting symbol for the rival PNP political party, which had gatecrashed the peace concert by organising an election for the same day, polticising an event Marley wanted to be quite the opposite. It might be a stretch to suggest that the well-know and easily recognisable Lloyd Coke was the man that shot at Marley, but it does allow James to weave together some of his key characters and set the novel off on its breakneck speed trajectory.
Of course there are characters that are impossible to map to the real world.
Josey Wales’ enforcers: the gay, crack addicted but well read Weeper, the silent but deadly Tony Pavarotti, and the disenfranchised kids he recruits to kill The Singer most likely have real-world counterparts, but played too minor a role in the history of Jamaica to warrant newspaper column inches.
Others are easier to map but less central to James’ narrative: the politicians Ed Seaga and his rival Michael Manly become Peter Nasser and Michael Manly. The latter probably keeps his real name because James doesn’t accuse him of murdering anyone…
The CIA’s involvement in Jamaican affairs during the Cold War is widely accepted, and James is happy to make their shady presence in the country fully formed in the banal shape of Barry Diflorio.
Then there is Nina Burgess/Kim Clarke/Dorcas Palmer/Millicent Segree, who is James’ everywoman. Burgess is representative of Jamaica and those who try to flee it. As Segree treats Jamaicans with gunshot wounds in a Bronx hospital ward she feels the violent history of the country she has tried to flee for the duration of the novel bubble up in her stomach: “I make it through the door just before the vomit burst my lips open and splatters all over the sidewalk. Somebody across the street must be watching me hack fried chicken while my own belly is contracting the life out of me.” (p.685–686)
In having Jamaica follow Segree all the way to America, James is not only mirroring his own feelings of exile, having moved to Minnesota eight years ago, but he is also mythologising the island and its history, placing it among Rushdie’s India and Marquez’s Colombia in the way that it doesn’t allow its characters to ever escape its grasp.
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