David Godfrey has written a series of stories about the world of crime, intrigue, Cold War paranoia and pre-independence concerns in 1950s Jamaica. The book largely covers the decade leading up to independence, when the island was forging something of an exotic direction for itself as the destination of choice for well heeled tourists and some prominent authors and actors like Noel Coward, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming (all of whom make an appearance in the book to a greater or lesser extent). However, it was also home to a much poorer population some of whom also turned to crime to make ends meet or to settle differences of opinion. The author carefully guides us through some fascinating cases all of which were based very much on actual events. We get to meet jealous husbands, royalty, priests and many more victims and perpetrators from all the various social classes and races found on the island. Indeed, that is one of the real strengths of the book. It gives insight to an incredibly varied and cosmopolitan society - even if seen through the prism of the police force. We meet a number of communities and see how they interacted and dealt with one another and we get a taste of what life in 1950s Jamaica may have been like.
The author is also very witty in his observations and writes in an engaging and easy to read manner. For example on a chapter about the Rastafarians he writes:
"At one of these rallies the Rastafarians
decided they would march: their route, timing and destination
delightfully unplanned; the purpose unclear."
The chapter goes on to give an insight into how the authorities viewed challenges to authority from however unlikely the source. This chapter at least came to a witty end rather than the poignant end that many of the more serious crime laden chapters managed to achieve. The author definitely pokes fun at the institutions and people of 1950s Jamaica which is why perhaps many of the names have been changed. However, there are also serious crimes discussed and I found myself thinking a few times that they would make fascinating screenplays for a television series.
The role of superstition and local customs is a common theme running through the book. In addition to being a frequent port of call for islanders in desperate circumstances, they also provide a constant source of inspiration to the authorities to allow them to collect information and exploit gullible criminals. It is also made abundantly clear that many of the criminals thrive on the high levels of superstition themselves and are willing to use any manner of means to enrich themselves. Potions, obeahmen and witch doctors constantly intrude on stories which might otherwise appear prosaic and thoroughly generic. The exotic locations and weather also add to the texture of the stories and make them even more interesting and absorbing.
The role of intelligence and understanding the community shines through many of the stories also. So many of the crimes are solved by either local knowledge or knowing who to approach or who to monitor to gather vital information. It is almost irrelevant who the target is; criminal, politician, labour activist or communist sympathiser. It is clear that the best police are those who understand the communities they serve and the people who live in them. Combine this local knowledge with dispassionate experts who exude no favouritism other than professional pride and you have a formidable crime fighting institution. The 1950s was a period of transformation and preparation towards independence and the number of expatriate police officers was tailing off dramatically as locally trained police were replacing them at the helm. However, the book makes it clear that British judicial and policing techniques were firmly embedded and in place after the many years of British control of the island. That, and the love of cricket which also makes a recurring appearance throughout the book.
It is always interesting to glance at a colony through fresh eyes. In many ways it is irrelevant if the eyes are those of say soldiers, missionaries, doctors, politicians, freedom fighters or whoever. But for some reason I find police views particularly intriguing and illuminating. The police are exposed to a very different society to most people. They see people from all social classes and often desperate people in desperate situations. They get to see a society from the inside out. They see the victims and perpetrators of crime. They meet murderers, thieves, con-men and all sorts of strange and interesting charactes. Addtionally though, they also need to understand the circumstances that lead some people to turn to crime; poverty, jealousy, greed, desperation.... And in trying to understand motives for crime, they also need to understand the society they live in and the people who live there. So memoirs by the police can cast a fascinating light on periods and places in imperial history. And of course, the one aspect of British imperial rule that most people cite as its consistent success story is the maintenance of law and order and a successful judicial system which often, in places like Jamaica, is still very much drawing from its colonial heritage and history. Authors like David Godfrey can introduce you to a cast of characters and situations that you would never discover in a history book!