St Pauls, Bristol. 1980. Joseph Tremaine Ellington, now 57 years old, has long abandoned his former career as an enquiry agent for the safety of teaching. But his old life draws him back. One of the very few lights from Ellington’s dark and violent past has flickered out. His fiancé Ruth Castle is dead – leaving him again heartbroken and alone to bring up his fifteen year old niece, Chloe. Ellington’s days are long and lonely, his nights tormented by old ghosts. When the wife of a locally respected Baptist minister vanishes into a seamy, dead-end world of users and abusers, leaving behind both her own family and a critically fragile premature infant daughter, Ellington is asked if he can help find the woman. Joseph is determined to keep his distance from the dangers of the Bristol night. But his inescapable obligation to an old friend, a man he deeply respects, keeps bringing him back like a moth to a flame…
I’ve been a confirmed fan of this series by M. P. Wright for a few years now, and have enjoyed each and every foray into the world of Joseph Tremaine Ellington and his cohorts. I’m delighted to say that A Traitor To His Blood does not disappoint. Having reviewed all the previous four books, it may be difficult to reign in the superlatives once again, but I’ll try my damnedest…
So where to begin, as each book thrums with a dark energy and an astutely vivid sense of time and place, not only referencing the sights and sounds of each particular era of Ellington’s life, but placing the reader firmly in the feel of the time. What is clever about this book in particular is the way it seamlessly taps into the zeitgeist of the present time, in the light of the BLM movement, the toppling of statues inextricably linked with the slave trade, and the continuing reductive perceptions of the black community and black culture that permeates our society still. Ellington is an intelligent and perceptive vessel for the author to explore and expose the deep racism that Ellington experiences as a Barbadian migrant in Bristol from the 60s to the 80’s, with the depressing realisation that once racism is ingrained in a society’s psyche, it is impossible to uproot. Such is Ellington’s day to day experience, and as he observes,
“Now all I saw was a kindred spirit; a man trod on by his history and dismissed because of the colour of his skin. A man who knew that the majority of people in this land would never notice his hardships or sorrows, and if they did, they would blame him for his own misery.”
As Wright immerses us in the black community, with the clack of the dominoes, the sweet tunes, the beautifully rendered cadence of speech and colloquialisms, and the determination of spirit to carve out a place in a city where life is mostly a grind and struggle, Ellington still strives, albeit at first reluctantly, to go about his business, on the trail of a missing woman, drawing him into a close encounter with a nemesis from the past and a tricky and violent investigation. As he traverses the lowlife pubs, gambling dens and knocking shops, and the body count increases, the reader feels the earthiness and raw reality of Bristol beneath the surface, but as much as the city tries to drag him down, there are some small beacons of light in the murderous darkness.
Ellington is probably one of the most well-defined and empathetic characters that I have ever encountered in crime fiction, and there is a proud nobility about the way he conducts himself. That’s not to say that he shies away from employing certain dirtier methods to achieve his ends, but that’s what endears him to both the community, and the somewhat grudging respect or outright resentment at times of the criminal fraternity.
“Looking back… I know that I have played my part in the killings of a number of men, albeit none by my own hand. Nevertheless, although I may have not pulled the trigger or taken a life personally, being part of or around such savagery taints the soul. “
The saving grace for Ellington is family and there are some lovely interactions with his adopted daughter Chloe, in her teenage years, and where Ellington finds himself a little on the backfoot as a single father, Whenever, Ellington is drawn into family situations with Chloe and his cousins there is a warmth and sense of loyalty that keeps him grounded, and allows him to rise above his periods of deep introspection, although one of his nearest and destructively dearest- what a fantastic character-may lead him into darker places than ever before. No spoilers here, although the final denouement of the book almost broke me, with Ellington, in the light of everything that has happened, experiencing an absolutely heart rending epiphany. I was incredibly moved by this emotional and unexpected ending.
The investigation that Ellington is tasked with in A Traitor To His Blood is a real teaser of a mystery, where people are despatched almost casually, and is full of twists and genuine surprises when I can confidently say that nothing, and no-one, are what they appear to be. Extremely tight plotting, compounded by a rhythmic and vivid use of language, both vernacular and descriptive, and the unerringly precise and believable characterisation, only confirms further the strength and quality of Wright’s writing. A pitch perfect addition to this superb series, and boy, what a brilliant journey it has been. As always incredibly highly recommended.
Catch up with previous four books below…
M P Wright was born in Leicestershire in 1965 into a family farming home that can be traced back through seven generations. After leaving school he decided to pursue his first love, music, not as a musician, but in a wide variety of support roles before he became a private investigator. He realised that excitement and Adrenalin were not a good substitute for a proper career and a steady job, and in 1989 retrained in the mental health sector. His role was at the sharp end of an intense, often dangerous and threatening profession, but his learned and inherent ability meant that he was promoted into the probation service and eventually the Home Office, where he was responsible for offender risk assessments. He has retained his deep love of music, especially film scores, both modern and vintage. He is an aficionado of real ales and is the Writer In Residence at the Criterion Free house in Leicester.
His Ellington novels are currently in development for television. M P Wright has two daughters and lives with his wife, Jen, and their two large, rescued Rottweiler dogs. Follow him on Twitter @EllingtonWright
(With special thanks to M. P. Wright for the ARC)