A Walk into The Dark Side with J T Ellington

Written by Mark Wright

M.P. Wright

 “Brother, a dead body can’t run from a coffin, but their spirit sure as hell can try.”


The origins of my Bajan detective, Joseph Tremaine Ellington and the genesis of Heartman were born on a different continent. In the autumn of 2003 I had travelled to New York and then took a flight on to the state of Louisiana and New Orleans. The two American cities could not be more different. Manhattan feels huge and modern, it is an iconic place and even after visiting on numerous occasions, amongst all the wonder of its skyscrapers and iconic municipal buildings, I still find its vastness intimidating and impersonal. New York has always given me the ‘Joe Buck’ – Midnight Cowboy kinda of feeling,

Like I was a fish out of water in a city that’s way too fast for me. New Orleans is the polar opposite. Its French Quarter to this day still has back streets that, when you walk down them, give off the aura of bygone, hedonistic southern times. Live oaks, palms and Cyprus moss hang from the ornate balconies of the veranda gardens of elderly buildings. There is heady tropical scent that permeates every part of the quarter and whether it be dusk or dawn you get a strong and eerie feeling that the ghosts of the American civil war are never more than a hairs breath away from you as you are drawn along its time worn sidewalks. Both New York and New Orleans have seen their fair share of crime over the years and crime writers have took inspiration from the mutually seedy criminal underbellies that can be found in both cities. This old port town on the edges of the Gulf of Mexico with its creepy aura and timeless feel helped me to create the foundations of my book, Heartman.

I found my inspiration in the Abbey Bar in Decatur Street in the French quarter. J T Ellington was born on a real hot day and in a heavy storm that was hitting New Orleans one Tuesday afternoon in September 2003. Outside the streets ran with rain and I was happy to be sitting out of the downpour with a long-necked bottle of ice cold Dixie beer which had been served to me by a diminutive but hard looking Louisianan bar man who was sat across the bar from me dressed in a grubby white vest and who was happily reading a Harry Potter hardback. Brownie McGhee’s Good Morning Blues was playing on the juke box and I had a copy of James Lee Burke’s Neon Rain for company. On my travels I’d always took a couple of Burke’s Dave Robicheaux crime novels along for the ride and now in New Orleans, home state of my favourite crime writer it seemed only fitting to be reading one of his books. But in that New Orleans bar, rather than read, I found myself writing.

I seem to remember that the bare backbones of Heartman’s story came to me quickly, a flash of inspiration that was born more from the copious amounts of Dixie beer I was drinking than through artistic endeavour. I wrote my ideas in pencil, in the back of a small black day-to-day diary that I’d been carrying in the back of my rucksack. I wrote for a good hour, and forged from my booze addled imagination what was to become my wily Bajan inquiry agent. I called him Ellington after the great jazz musician, Duke Ellington and I set the story in my home town of Leicester, which in later years became, Bristol, a city with a vast and rich Black émigré and Caribbean history.

Outside on that ‘Big Easy’ street, the rain had stopped, I knocked back the rest of my Dixie beer, put my diary back in to my bag then walked out of the bar into the sunshine and then quickly forget about J T Ellington ...

But some things, people or ideas are hard to keep locked away. My wily Bajan detective for instance refused to stay in the shadows.

Nearly fifteen years later I find myself about to publish the final part of my planned trilogy that began in 2013 with Heartman. Restless Coffins sees Ellington still struggling to make ends meet. Life is tough for the reluctant Bajan private eye. He is still trading in favours, helping those scared of the police or trying to stay one step of the law. Tragic news arrives in the form of a telegram, its unwelcome contents informing J.T of the death of his younger sister, Bernice. A ghost from Ellington’s past requests he returns home, back to Barbados to settle family affairs. It’s a fearful journey home that Ellington never expected to make, an unwelcome walk in to the dark side of Caribbean island life where J.T must once again reluctantly face the demons of his sad past.

I write in the first person, through Ellington and his voice, reasoning and attitudes to the unsavoury social mores of the many white characters (some nefarious) he meets in Restless Coffins and the two previous novels are very much the understandable attitudes of many Black men and women at the time. The latest book is set in 1967 and I hope those unsavoury and at times shameful bigotries and racist attitudes, so prevalent during the era (and long after) are captured authentically and honestly. In a literary sense I have been influenced by the writing of Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and of course I tip my hat to the brilliant LA Noir crime writer, Walter Mosley. But despite those great influences I hope readers of the three novels will see J T Ellington as being a character that stands out very much on his own. He is not super human, he is a man who struggles with self-doubt but at the same time on the street, has an out ward cocky confidence that hides insecurities. He is plagued by the demons of his past and misses the Caribbean life that he has been forced to leave. Ellington is Barbadian, an ex-colonial police officer, and a man with secrets who is barely existing in a country he really does not want to live in.

The sense of prejudice and hostility to both Ellington’s colour and his past as a disgraced police officer permeate through all three of the books. This was deliberately structured from my early drafts in all three novels and I hope has added to my detective’s personal sense of social and cultural isolation. As a character, Ellington has lived with bigotry and intolerance for as long as he can remember and this is reflected within my novels. The ugly face of racism in the 1960’s in Britain towards the immigrant population is never far away in Heartman, All Through the Night and now, Restless Coffins. Its unwelcome presence will be a reoccurring theme in my fourth Ellington novel, Rivers of Blood. To recognise and address such truths within my stories is both important to me as a writer and I hope it keeps the books grounded in both social and historical fact.

Telling it how it is (or was back then) is something I know would dearly matter to my man J T ... and I know that I’d be a damn fool to upset him.

The J.T. Ellington series is publish by Black and White Publishing.

The audio books are brilliantly narrated by Ben Onwukwe. Available from Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd

Mark Wright

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