Marlon James, ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ (2014)

Gun weight is a different kind of weight. Or maybe it be something else, a feeling that whenever you hold a gun is really the gun holding you.’

brief historyThe deliberate application of violence – for political, criminal or psychopathic reasons – is one of the many themes swirling through Marlon James’ third novel. The title is deceptive; there are many more than seven killings in a book which takes as its starting point the attempted shooting of reggae superstar Bob Marley in 1976. But a story that starts with a narrow geographical focus – rival Jamaican street gangs fighting for territory – soon spreads much more widely, resulting in ripples that are felt way beyond the Caribbean.

As well as suggesting possible motives for the attack on Marley, Marlon James also describes the act’s consequences, some of which are not fully realised until 25 years later. In between he takes in Cold War politics, the CIA and the crack cocaine epidemic that hit New York in the 1980s, in a satisfyingly fat narrative that is Ellrovian in its scope and ambition.

James matches this ambition with the range of different voices he uses to tell it. Politicians, gangsters, shady government operatives, victims of crime, a music journalist and a hitman jostle for position, narrators who at once remarkably distinct and closely related to one another. This becomes particularly interesting when – about a third of the way through the book – the reader begins to suspect that one of them is not quite who they first appear to be.

One strand is told by a Jamaican gangster named Josey Wales (after the eponymous Clint Eastwood outlaw). Early on, it’s clear that Josey is a lot smarter than he allows others to think he is; and whilst initially he’s happy to play along with the CIA agents who want to use his influence to affect the outcome of an election (and prevent Jamaica becoming ‘another Cuba’), it’s not long before Josey is using this arrangement to more directly benefit himself. Josey is a terrific example of the law of unintended consequences, one small front in the Cold War creating a monster, and a drug smuggling operation that stretches from South America through the Caribbean up to Miami and New York.

Josey is a prime example of the Darwinian struggle for status and power that governs his criminal world, and as the book progresses we see his own influence begin to wane. Just as he is initially scornful of his boss Papa-Lo, a once brutal don who now finds with himself softening with age, so Josey reflects ever more frequently on the precariousness of his own position. ‘The problem with proving something is that instead of leaving you alone people never stop giving new things to prove, harder things. Bullshit things.

marlon jamesThe scope of James’ novel is not the only aspect that draws comparisons with James Ellroy. Like the latter, Marlon James is a man clearly in love with language, and he delights in using Jamaican patois and dialect which (to my unaccustomed ear) sounds pleasingly accurate. It takes a while to get used to, but is well worth persevering with. Cracking the language is another way in which as reader you feel yourself entering a hidden world, one that deserves to be more widely known about. Brief history it most certainly is not, but it’s one more than capable of repaying the time you invest in it.


  1. […] Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings – second Booker Prize winner on my list, but there the similarities with The Narrow Road to the Deep North end. This is a singular exploration of the attempt in 1976 to assassinate reggae superstar Bob Marley, an act which James suggests was part of a wider CIA-backed battle to prevent Jamaica from becoming another Cuba. From this starting point James weaves an epic story that takes in the Cold War, gang culture and the drugs epidemic that hit New York in the 1980s. James uses a wide range of narrators to tell his story, each with their own singular voice, and this creates a cacophonous effect that suits the chaos and Darwinian struggle of his narrative very nicely indeed. […]

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