Mahmood Mattan is a fixture in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. He is a father, chancer, sometimes petty thief. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer.
So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried. It is true that he has been getting into trouble more often since his Welsh wife Laura left him. But Mahmood is secure in his innocence in a country where, he thinks, justice is served.
It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of freedom dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood in a terrifying fight for his life – against conspirac prejudice and the inhumanity of the state. And, under the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he begins to realize that the truth may not be enough to save him.
Thank you to Alex at Viking Books for reaching out to offer me a proof copy of this book, The Fortune Men, published last week. An original novel based on true events, Mahmood’s case was the first to be accepted by The Criminal Cases Review Commission and put before the Appeal Court, where 46 years after his death, it was ruled to be unsafe. This wrongful conviction became the first to be rectified by a British court.
So you won’t be surprised to hear this is a powerful and sad story set in the 50s, in Wales a diverse port community where racism is rife. Reading the book it seems there was not a huge motivation by those investigating to establish the true perpetrator of the murder. Mahmood fit the bill, he was Somalian and that seemed to be enough. His past misdeamours offered enough for some to testify against him, claiming to have seen him. A generous reward motivated others to come forward with sketchy evidence against him. His own conviction in God and the truth did not serve him well. Race was a factor, his marriage to a local white woman I am sure played a part, but reading about this historic case, it is devasting, the end is particulary dramatic and this book could generate a whole other conversation about capital punishment.
The story is told in the third person but the voice of Mahmood is strong. Lots of characters and a loose timeline mean the book does require some concentration. A strong sense of community is evident and the writing is familiar as is the community, the effect for me was a sense of not always recalling characters referred to. In 400 pages Mahmood’s life is covered but not chronologically, again this could be confusing but became easier as the book progressed. That said, Mahmood is captured as a player, a loveable rogue known locally, a petty thief with an eye for the ladies, and the horses, always keen to make a quick dollar.
This book is about a miscarriage of justice and explores the circumstances that allowed this to happen. The story is strong and feels like a very important story to be told. For fans of historical fiction and true crime stories, allow some time to settle into the story but well worth a read.
About the Author
Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa, Somaliland, in 1981 and moved to Britain at the age of four. Her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, won the Betty Trask Prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and PEN Open Book Award. Her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, won a Somerset Maugham Award and the Prix Albert Bernar. Nadifa Mohamed was selected fo the Granta Best of Young British Novelists in 2013, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She contributes regularly to the Guardian, BBC and The New York Times. She lives in London.