Fresh Blood

Name: M.P. Wright

Title of Book: Heartman

'...a refreshing crime debut that zings like the lime in a Barbadian Rum Punch. '

Bristol, 1965 is under a ton of snow and it is far too cold for Joseph Tremaine ‘JT’ Ellington who is more used to a hotter climate. It was only a few months back since Ellington arrived from Barbados to escape a past that had consumed his family and threatened his own life. He is a long way from his life as a policeman on the island he once called ‘home’.

Ellington, on the verge of desperation takes on a job from that rarest of specimens – a black guy who has done well for himself in the world of white men. Linney will pay whatever it costs to find Stella and bring her back home – preferably alive.

Stella Hopkins is deaf and mute and a very insular person. So why, just before her disappearance was she seen in the company of Papa Anansi, one of the biggest and most dangerous pimps known in Bristol? And why was she seen in a place where prostitutes operated?

Desperate for cash, Ellington puts his past experience to good use but is soon attacked on all sides. It appears that Papa Anansi is only the tip of the iceberg and the corruption goes a lot deeper.

Bristol is covered in snow and just like the harsh landscape, ‘Heartman’ is a harsh, cold thriller. As with most of this book, there is no pussy-footing about and Wright gets stuck in and dirty up to the elbows from page one. ‘Find the girl’. The case sounds easy enough, but Wright is there to throw a few spanners in the works for ‘JT’ Ellington. Soon enough Wright has Ellington in over his head. Thankfully, he has his cousin, Vic to cover his ‘ass’.

Wright is brilliant at characterisation. Vic is pure gold and we’d all like a cousin like him to call on when things get too hot. There is the fiery Mrs Pearce who is just like every other white person in Bristol at that time, a racist, although they’d never admit it. But even by the end, Mrs Pearce softens toward Ellington. I even expected another character, Reverend Southerington to reappear after his initial entrance, but he didn’t and I’d like to see him back again. Every character had their own individual voice which is where Wright wins, especially where Vic is concerned.

My favourite line of Vic’s is when Ellington comes back out of his flat after collecting something before they head off to ‘face the enemy’. Ellington gets back in to the car with Vic just as Mrs Pearce emerges at the window of her flat. Vic says,

‘Shit… I thought you gone inside to bring that mean ole bitch of a neighbour o’ yours as some extra back-up!’

You can see I was smitten with Vic – his one liner made me laugh out loud.

My only small niggle is Wright needs to give sixties Bristol its own unique voice, too. Despite great characters, I didn’t quite get the flavour of 60’s Britain. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of references to that time period, but I want more than a passing whiff. I wanted to ‘taste’ the sixties, to be plunged back in to that era before DNA became such a turning point in police investigations and before the advent of the surveillance camera on every street corner.

‘Heartman’ is a wonderful debut, different not only due to the time period or area, but because of the people in it. Folk who are not originally from these shores but try to integrate despite massive opposition and glaring racism, whilst trying to hold on to their own set of values. It is a very intriguing mix and promises great things in future books. ‘Heartman’ is a refreshing crime debut that zings like the lime in a Barbadian Rum Punch.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) You have placed your novel in Bristol in 1965. Why Bristol? And why choose 1965?
Bristol is a beautiful city, full of history and as a major UK city I feel it has also been rather underused in crime fiction. On BBC TV in the 1970’s we had Trevor Eve as Eddie Shoestring. That’s about where it ends. I’m sure there are plenty of other crime writers that have created stories set around the West Country, but I wanted to focus on a particular time and place in British social history; immigrant life in St Pauls, in Bristol at a time when the UK was undergoing real change. Bristol’s a port city, walking along the dockside of the harbour you get the sense of how powerful and important the place once was to English commerce and why so many people travelled from around the world to start new lives for themselves in the ‘green and pleasant land’. Factually Bristol has always had a large West Indian/Caribbean community. St Paul’s was the hub of that community in the 1960’s. It was the perfect setting for my Bajan detective, although like many travellers to the UK at that time they soon found that the streets were not paved with gold as they were promised.
2) Joseph (JT) Ellington is a black man from Barbados who is now ‘stranded’ in Bristol. As a white guy why did you choose to write from the perspective of a black man? How difficult was this and what research, if any did you do to give your book authenticity?
Firstly, I wanted to write the sort of crime novel I enjoyed reading. I’d spent a long time working with offenders, real life crime and had no interest in creating a ‘police procedural’ style kind of novel and I’m still bound by strong codes of confidentiality, so creating a story based on my life experiences was out. I love the writing of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, James Lee Burke and Walter Mosley and that noir style was one of the important elements that I wanted to bring to 'Heartman'. The original idea for the story is around ten years old and in its early form was a screenplay. The main character ‘JT’ in my mind was always Bajan. The blurb calls him an ‘ex cop’ – I never saw him in such simplistic terms. He was once a Sargeant in the Barbadian Colonial Police Force, governed by an officer class that was generally and historically made up from ex serving, white high ranking Metropolitan constabulary officers and I never considered myself to be a white writer, writing about black experiences in 1965 Britain. I knew I had a great character in JT and I wanted to tell his story from Ellington’s perspective, irrespective of his colour or race.

I gave JT a strong back history that serves to make the character multi faceted, I hope. Ellington’s experiences of prejudice are based on lengthy research and interviews which I undertook over an 18 month period with members of the Caribbean communities both here in Leicester and in Bristol. I wanted to say something socially in regards to my personal abhorrence of racism but without getting on my ‘socialist soapbox’. Ellington’s reaction and attitudes towards racism and intolerance are reflective of his early experiences on the force back home and the prejudice he will continue to experience in later books is something I did not want to shy away from.
3) Many of your characters speak in their own regional dialect. Again, did you have to research the language used back then and was it difficult putting it down on the page?
The dialogue has ‘West Indian’ patois threaded through it and that dialogue is as authentic as I could possible make it. I’ve worked with members of our local Caribbean community over the years in outreach teams, at day centres and in supported housing in the city. Accents and West Indian or Caribbean patois have always fascinated me and I wanted the characters’ voices to feel ‘true’ and honest. I didn’t find it hard to put it down on the page, there’s something lyrical and beautiful in those accents. Incidentally, Ellington, has a colonial ‘clipped’, almost old school English gent’s accent for the majority of the time (Police Officers were expected to uphold the Queens English & diction whilst on duty in the colonial forces during the 50’s & 60’s). He does however drop into a more traditional Bajan accent when talking to family & friends.
4) As we all know, in those days there was a very aggressive amount of racism against black people, not just in the UK, but across the world. What was the most astonishing thing you found out about people’s behaviour towards black people in the early 60’s?
Frankly the appalling racism and atrocious prejudice which was prevalent in the UK during the 1960’s and which was described to me by many of the individuals that I interviewed didn’t come as any surprise to me and some of the accounts I heard were both shocking and disgraceful. What did however surprise me was to hear stories of individuals and families from the West Indies being made welcome by a minority of white society during that time. Not all those that travelled from the Caribbean had ‘horror’ stories to tell.

There was one terrible story told to me by an elderly Jamaican lady here in Leicester which will stay with me forever though. The lady in question told me that during early 1967 she was looking for work in the city during a very hot summer’s day. During her search for employment became desperate to use the toilet and could not find a public convenience to use. She proceeded to enter shops, public houses and numerous businesses to ask if she could possibly use the toilet. She was blankly and cruelly refused the use of any washroom facilities in every establishment she entered, desperate, she finally soiled herself as she made futile attempts to find someone willing to let her use their lavatory. To hear the story recounted in such a matter of fact manner was both shocking and deeply saddening.
5) You use some very emotive language in ‘Heartman’ which even today is quite inflammatory in public opinion. Why did you feel it necessary to include this in your book?
Simply, that’s the way those characters speak. It’s the way they engage in that world much as in the same way that Mouse speaks to Easy in Walter Mosley’s ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ or Cletus Purcell berates Louisianan criminals and gangsters in Jim Burke’s crime novels. I wanted that kind of honesty and verbal flow, whether it was using foul language or not. Many of my characters are ‘edgy’ individuals. They speak as they find. Not all of the characters in ‘Heartman’ swear, although many do and that’s as it should be for those characters - it’s part of their personalities.
6) There is a close knit feel in JT’s life, despite having lost everything in Barbados. Was family so important back then?
From the experiences described to me back then, yes, absolutely. If you’re thousands of miles away from home, in a country that is culturally far removed from your own, family and the maintenance of family values is all important. I also wrote from my own personal family perspective, as a child of the 60’s growing up in a rural setting, family was all important. Eating and drinking together, being close to your neighbours. Ellington, we find, has lost close family back home on Barbados, or ‘Bim’ as Bajans call it. I felt that it was important to give the man others to care about. I didn’t want a ‘traditional, loner detective,’ he needed to have loved ones around him. It gives JT a ‘real deal’ feel about him and his family will become even more important in subsequent stories.
7) Vic is good, loyal and a very bad boy. Was he fun to write about? Please say Vic will be back.
I’ve heard this said so much of late and it’s so welcome to hear that readers like him. Vic Ellington is JT’s cousin and he’s everything that you have just described him as. He was incredible fun to write and his edgy personality flew off the page. Vic is going to be more than a loved family member though. He’s no ‘side kick’ for JT. Over the next two books Vic will become a more powerful face within the Bristol criminal underworld, he’ll become stronger and increasingly dangerous. I wanted that juxtaposition from JT from the off. So, rest assured Vic will be back and I have to be honest with you at this point: in many ways, Vic is very much me, he shares many of my own personality traits; very matter of fact, don’t take fools gladly, short tempered at times but good humoured and with a nasty habit of swearing. I’m not painting a very good picture of myself am I?
8) What do you look for when you pick up a book to read?
I like to feel the hearts of the characters in the books I read. I like some flesh on the bones of their personalities. I need to believe in the people I’m reading about. I like authenticity. I read very few UK police procedurals, most coppers and detectives I know never behave as they are portrayed in crime fiction. I tend to hark back to writers who set the highest benchmarks of crime fiction. I feel more at home with their writing styles. That said, there are some great books out at the moment, Eva Dolan’s ‘Long Way Home’ and Luca Veste’s brilliant ‘Dead Gone’ both gripped me from the off.
9) What do you have planned for your next book? Does it involve J.T. et al. again? If so, will we still be in Bristol, 1965 or do you intend to leapfrog a few years?
J T Ellington will be back in ‘All Through the Night.’ It’s 1966 and JT is starting to find his feet as an ‘enquiry agent’. I’m working on the final edits at the moment. During the autumn I’m writing a screenplay called ‘Empty Arms’ and then in the spring of 2015 I’m back with JT for book three. All I can say about that is that Ellington and Vic will be returning to Barbados.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
‘In The Electric Mist with Confederate Dead’ – James Lee Burke

‘The Long Goodbye’ – Raymond Chandler

‘The Drowning Pool’ – Ross MacDonald