ShortList is supported by you, our amazing readers. When you click through the links on our site and make a purchase we may earn a commission. Learn more

The ShortRead: Marlon James

The ShortRead: Marlon James

The ShortRead: Marlon James
Danielle de Wolfe
14 October 2015

A Brief History of Seven Killings

Author: Marlon James

What's the story: Marlon James has done a hard thing. He's taken a complex, myth-like chapter in the story of an international legend, and given it new life. Anyone who's taken a passing interest in the music and life of Bob Marley - even so much as skimmed his Wikipedia entry - will know of the attempt that was made on his life on 3 December 1976. Set to play the Smile Jamaica concert to ease political tensions in the nation, seven men from West Kingston stormed his house with machine guns. Marley survived the incident and went on to perform at the free concert. But the next day he left the country and didn’t return for two years.

A Brief History of Seven Killings gives an oral biography to this tense moment in Marley's career, telling it through witnesses, killers, members of parliament and the CIA. Poetic, vivid, this is a deeply entertaining read.

Release date: Out now



I know I was fourteen. That me know. I also know that too many people talk too much, especially the American, who never shut up, just switch to a laugh every time he talk ’bout you, and it sound strange how he put your name beside people we never hear ’bout, Allende Lumumba, a name that sound like a country that Kunta Kinte come from. The American, most of the time hide him eye with sunglasses like he is a preacher from America come to talk to black people. Him and the Cuban come sometimes together, sometimes on they own, and when one talk the other always quiet. The Cuban don’t fuck with guns because guns always need to be needed, him say.

And I know me used to sleep on a cot and I know that my mother was a whore and my father was the last good man in the ghetto. And I know we watched your big house on Hope Road for days now, and at one point you come talk to us like you was Jesus and we was Iscariot and you nod as if to say get on with your business and do what you have to do. But I can’t remember if me see you or if somebody told me that him see you so that me think I see it too, you stepping out on the back porch, eating a slice of
breadfruit, she coming out of nowhere like she have serious business outside at that time of night and shocked, so shocked that you don’t have no clothes on, then she reach for your fruit because she want to eat it even though Rasta don’t like when woman loose and you both get to midnight raving, and I grab meself and rave too from either seeing it or hearing it, and then you write a song about it. The boy from Concrete Jungle on the same girly green scooter come by for four days at eight in the morning and four in the evening for the brown envelope until the new security squad start to turn him back. We know about that business too.

In the Eight Lanes and in Copenhagen City all you can do is watch. Sweet-talking voice on the radio say that crime and violence are taking over the country and if change ever going to come then we will have to wait and see, but all we can do down here in the Eight Lanes is see and wait. And I see shit water run free down the street and I wait. And I see my mother take two men for twenty dollars each and one more who pay twenty-five to stay in instead of pull out and I wait. And I watch my father get so sick and tired of her that he beat her like a dog. And I see the zinc on the roof rust itself brown, and then the rain batter hole into it like foreign cheese, and I see seven people in one room and one pregnant and people fucking anyway because people so poor that they can’t even afford shame and I wait.

And the little room get smaller and smaller and more sisterbrothercousin come from country, the city getting bigger and bigger and there be no place to rub-a-dub or cut you shit and no chicken back to curry and even when there is it still cost too much money and that little girl get stab because they know she get lunch money every Tuesday and the boys like me getting older and not in school very regular and can’t read Dick and Jane but know Coca-Cola, and want to go to a studio and cut a tune and sing hit songs and ride the riddim out of the ghetto but Copenhagen City and the Eight Lanes both too big and every time you reach the edge, the edge move ahead of you like a shadow until the whole world is a ghetto, and you wait.

I see you hungry and waiting and know that it’s just luck, you loafing around the studio and Desmond Dekker telling the man to give you a break, and he give you the break because he hear the hunger in your voice before he even hear you sing. You cut a tune, but not a hit song, too pretty for the ghetto even then, for we past the time when prettiness make anybody’s life easy. We see you hustle and trying to talk your way twelve inches taller and we want to see you fail. And we know nobody would want you to be a rudeboy anyway for you look like a schemer.

And when you disappear to Delaware and come back, you try sing the ska, but ska already left the ghetto to take up residence uptown. Ska take the plane to foreign to show white people that it’s just like the twist. Maybe that make the Syrian and the Lebanese proud, but when we see them in the newspaper posing with Air Hostess we not proud, just stunned stupid. You make another song, this time a hit. But one hit can’t bounce you out of the ghetto when you recording hits for a vampire. One hit can’t make you into
Skeeter Davis or the man who sing them Gunfighter Ballads.

By the time boy like me drop out of my mother, she give up. Preacher says there is a god-shaped void in everybody life but the only thing ghetto people can fill a void with is void. Nineteen seventy-two is nothing like 1962 and people still whispering for they could never shout that when Artie Jennings dead all of a sudden he take the dream with him. The dream of what I don’t know. People stupid. The dream didn’t leave, people just don’t know a nightmare when they right in the middle of one. More people start moving to the ghetto because Delroy Wilson just sing that “Better Must Come” and the man who would become Prime Minister sing it too. Better Must Come. Man who look like white man but chat bad like naigger when they have to, singing “Better Must Come.” Woman who dress like the Queen, who never care about the ghetto before it swell and burst in Kingston singing “Better Must Come.”

But worst come first.

We see and wait. Two men bring guns to the ghetto. One man show me how to use it. But ghetto people used to kill each other long before that. With anything we could find: stick, machete, knife, ice pick, soda bottle. Kill for food. Kill for money. Sometimes a man get kill because he look at another man in a way that he didn’t like. And killing don’t need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness.

Madness is walking up a good street downtown and seeing a woman dress up in the latest fashion and wanting to go straight up to her and grab her bag, knowing that it’s not the bag or the money that we want so much, but the scream, when she see that you jump right into her pretty-up face and you could slap the happy right out of her mouth and punch the joy right out of her eye and kill her right there and rape her before or after you kill her because that is what rudeboys like we do to decent women like her. Madness
that make you follow a man in a suit down King Street, where poor people never go and watch him throw away a sandwich, chicken, you smell it and wonder how people can be so rich that they use chicken for just to put between so-so bread, and you pass the garbage and see it, still in the foil, and still fresh, not brown with the other garbage and no fly on it yet and you think maybe, and you think yes and you think you have to, just to see what chicken taste like with no bone. But you say you not no madman, and the
madness in you is not crazy people madness but angry madness, because you know the man throw it away because he want you to see. And you promise yourself that one day rudeboy going to start walking with a knife and next time I going jump him and carve sufferah right in him chest.

But he know boy like me can’t walk downtown for long before we get pounce on by Babylon. Police only have to see that me don’t have no shoes before he say what the bloodcloth you nasty naiggers doing ’round decent people, and give me two choices. Run and he give chase into one of the lanes that cut through the city so that he can shoot me in the private. Plenty shots in the magazine so at least one bullet must hit. Or stand down and get beat up right in front of decent people, him swinging the baton and knocking out my side teeth and cracking my temple so that I can never hear good out of that ear again and saying let that be a lesson to never take you dutty, stinking, ghetto self uptown again. And I see them and I wait.

But then you come back even though nobody know when you leave. Woman want to know why you come back when you can always get nice things like Uncle Ben’s rice in America. We wonder if you go there to sing hit songs. Some of we keep watching as you shift through the ghetto like small fish in a big river. Me know your game now but didn’t see it then, how you friend up the gunman here, the Rasta with the big sound there and this bad man and that rudeboy and even my father, so that everybody know you
enough to like you, but not enough to remember to recruit you. You sing just about anything, anything to get a hit, even stuff that you alone know and nobody else care about. “And I Love Her,” because Prince Buster cover “You Won’t See Me” and get himself a hit. You use what you have, even a melody that’s not yours and you sing it hard and sing it long and sing yourself straight out of the ghetto. By 1971 you already on TV. By 1971 I shoot my first shot.

I was ten.

For more excellent reads, check out our previous choices below - just click on the link:

Extinction Game by Gary Gibson

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

The Pointless Book by Alfie Deyes

A Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani

Personal by Lee Child


Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre

The Final Silence by Stuart Neville

The Traitor's Heir by Anna Thayer

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Heartman by M.P. Wright

Lobsters by Tom Ellen & Lucy Ivison

Want You Dead by Peter James

Caught Short by Anthony Horowitz

No Harm Can Come To A Good Man by James Smythe

The Murder Bag by Tony Parsons

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

Who is Tom Ditto by Danny Wallace

The Girl who saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)