A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James’s third novel, is the not-so-brief history of many hundreds of killings. The demure title belies its enormous ambition: James’s ostensible subject is the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 and the climate of political violence in which that event took place, but the shooting is essentially a reference point in a much larger narrative about the island of Jamaica, the Jamaican diaspora, and the whole of the American world in the second half of the 20th century. Bob Marley is useful for James not because he is, for many people, the most familiar point of contact between Jamaica and the rest of the world, but because he is too often the only point of contact. He is all many people know about an island that was once among the most politically and economically important places in the world; a place the British and Spanish and French fought over for centuries; a place where great fortunes were made and millions of kidnapped Africans died.
James’s first two novels—John Crow’s Devil (2005), a short Caribbean small-town story, and The Book of Night Women (2009), about a slave revolt on a colonial-era sugar plantation—are both simple in their structure and straightforward in their telling. Seven Killings is a significant departure. It is exceptionally long (nearly 700 pages) and has been billed by its publisher as an “epic”—a label that can be worrisome but that, in this case, is justified. Its fragmented narrative emanates from the minds of its many different characters, who speak a variety of dialects, come from a great variety of social classes, move somewhat freely in time (and, in one case, speak from beyond the grave), and occasionally slip into Molly Bloom–style stream of consciousness. Its structure resembles that of As I Lay Dying, although there are more characters and more story lines, and the story unfolds over a much longer period of time.
The assassination attempt is a real but obscure historical event. Marley had agreed to play a concert sponsored by Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP), and although his political allegiance was unclear—he’s depicted in the novel as a kind of peacemaker, “making ism rhyme with schism”—his apparent support of the PNP was potentially disastrous for the rival political party, the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP), which would have had good reason to try to prevent the concert from taking place. Marley’s manager, wounded in the shooting, said years later that the plot was orchestrated by the CIA, which was hostile to the socialist-leaning PNP. This is the version of events to which James subscribes, and it’s more than plausible in the Cold War Caribbean, particularly in the JLP garrison of Copenhagen City, a fictionalized version of Tivoli Gardens, Kingston’s notorious slum and the site of the violent standoff during the attempted arrest of its “don,” Christopher “Dudus” Coke, in 2010. Josey Wales, who has named himself for a fictional American outlaw, is the head enforcer of the garrison. He works with the CIA to train gunmen and carry out the assassination, and he does so without the knowledge of Papa-Lo, the reigning don of Copenhagen City.
But CIA or no, Jamaica was and is a dangerous place to be a musician. What was unusual about the assassination attempt was that Marley survived. Musicians like Prince Far-I, Peter Tosh, Carlton Barrett, King Tubby, and Hugh Mundell all met violent ends in the decade and a half that followed. Tosh and Prince Far-I were killed in what appear to have been attempted robberies, but the others died more mysteriously, gunned down in their yards or in their cars. The violence continues today: Drummer Style Scott was murdered last October. “A lot of these killings,” James said in an interview, “some of them are random, some are robberies, some are just because Jamaica is violent, but some of them are something that everyone’s connected to and most times you only know half the story.” In Seven Killings, the conspiracy involves JLP politicians, and James repeatedly underscores the extent to which the Jamaican governing elite has always been hostile to prominent people—especially musicians—who become symbolic of and beloved by the underclass.