By Lisa Vives
“Fortune Men” is the third novel by acclaimed novelist Nadifa Mohamed and the first by a British Somali to be shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize.
Her latest book tells the story of a notorious miscarriage of justice and the real-life wrongful conviction of British Somali sailor Mahmood Mattan for a 1952 murder in Cardiff, capital of Wales.
Londoner Nadifa, who was born in Somaliland before moving to the UK as a child, spent years researching the novel including several visits to Cardiff and meeting with people who knew Mahmood as well as relatives of Lily Volpert, the woman he was wrongly convicted of killing.
She first became aware of the case via a 2004 newspaper article when she discovered her late father, also a British Somali seaman, had known Mahmood in the 1950s.
“I found out about this case about 17 years ago and from that moment on, I became obsessed with it,” she said in an online interview. “I wanted to know who he was, how this happened, why it happened, all of the details. I also looked through all of the police archives, the court transcripts. What I found was a man who was a radical in many ways. He wanted to break down the rules that were forced on him. It’s a novel in love with its main character and the world around him.”
Mahmood Mattan, the central character of the book, was a fixture in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustled with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. He was a father, a conman, a petty criminal. He was a smooth talker with rakish charm and an eye for a good game. He was many things, but not a murderer.
So, when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried in the belief there were witnesses who allegedly saw him enter a shop that same night. However the court ruled against him and he was executed – the last to suffer the death penalty in that country.
Walter Mosely, author of Devil in a Blue Dress, praised the book: “Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is a blues song cut straight from the heart. It tells about the unjust death of an innocent Black man caught up in a corrupt system.
“Nadifa’s masterful evocation of the full life of Mahmood Mattan, the last man executed in Cardiff for a crime he was exonerated for 40 years later, is brought alive with subtle artistry and heart-breaking humanity.”
“In one man’s life, Mohamed captures the multitudes of homelands, dialects, hopes, and prayers of Somalis, Jews, Maltese and West Indians drawn in by the ships that filled Wales’ Tiger Bay in the 1950’s, all hoping for a future that eludes Mattan.”
“I’m working on an opera, and a few other things, it still hasn’t left me,” said Nadifa of the story of Mahmood and his Welsh wife Laura Williams.
“Fortune Men” follows two previous widely acclaimed novels, “Black Mamba Boy” and “The Orchard of Lost Souls.” The latest book is scheduled for release in December.