Bristol in the early 1960s: Joseph Tremaine Ellington is a Barbadian expoliceman who, like many of his generation in the West Indies, has come to the UK to make a new life in the mother country. But the land of opportunity is not all it is cut out to be. It is not just the weather that is cold: so is the welcome. Facing hostility and prejudice at every turn, Ellington struggles to make ends meet. But then he meets community bigwig, Earl Linney, a man with a finger in every pie, who has made good in the white man’s world. Earl needs help in finding Stella Hopkins, a young West Indian woman who has disappeared. Earl does not want go to the police, so he asks Ellington to track her down. With few allies other than his not-so-honest cousin, Victor, Ellington has to keep his wits about him. Devil in a Blue Dress meets Chinatown set in the rough world of Bristol nightlife, in the pubs, shebeens and nightclubs that are the haunts of prostitutes and criminals, places where danger lurks around every corner…
Always keen to bang the drum for debut crime authors, I was more than intrigued by the premise of this one by M. P. Wright. Mentally riffling through my crime knowledge, I failed to think of a single book that had used the backdrop of 1960’s Bristol, and equally that focused on the significant changes on its demographic following the influx of immigrants to Britain in this period. My curiosity was piqued and, like many other reviewers, I was more than pleasantly surprised by Heartman. Heralded as the crime debut of the year , Heartman certainly brings something new and fresh to the British crime writing scene. Set in Bristol 1965, Wright has created not only a compelling and thought-provoking thriller, but introduces the world to Joseph Jermaine ‘JT’ Ellington, an ex-cop with a tragic past and a broken heart.
The absolute stand out feature of this book is the characterisation of not only the highly credible and empathetic JT Ellington, whose investigative services are called upon when a vulnerable young woman disappears, but unusually every character no matter how large or small their part in the book. With Wright’s pitch perfect descriptions of their appearance, speech, temperament, humour and their interaction with others, every character reaches out from the page with clarity and most importantly believability. Ellington is a masterful creation, and although I did doubt the weighty comparison to Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, he is revealed as a man of contrary mood, a strong moral core, yet haunted by the tragic events of his past. I loved the interplay between him and his cohorts, in particular his colourful and avuncular cousin Vic, a loveable rogue and a bon vivant of the highest order, all too keen to get sucked into Ellington’s investigation and to get a piece of whatever action follows. Equally, the slow-witted but faithful friend Carnell and his sassy wife Loretta, provide another source of comic relief, in what is, all told, a dark and sordid narrative. The balance between the lighter moments and the seedy nature of Ellington’s investigation is perfectly weighted throughout, and there are some moments in the story that do cause you to take a breath with the intensity of emotion that accompanies the gradual reveals and heightened violence of the plot.
The resonance and realisation of this cultural and social period is first class, with Wright effortlessly recreating the sights, sounds and atmosphere of not only the 60’s but of a harsh Bristolian winter. I loved the cranky responses of the main characters to the inclement weather, compared to the balmy tropical climates that they have left far behind them. The specific references to the time period are spot on and the responses and frustrations of immigration from both sides of the fence are balanced throughout. Supported by the flowing cadence of his character’s speech that rhythmically carries you along, as well as an utterly gripping plot, suffused with vile characters, sordid goings-on and a good smattering of violence, Heartman does not disappoint on any level. A strong contender for a place in my Top 5 of the year and a remarkable debut.
(With thanks to Black & White Publishing for the ARC)