A close, head-and-shoulders portrait of Nadifa Mohamed, she is wearing a pink head scarf

How a 17-year-old newspaper article inspired Nadifa Mohamed to Booker success

The tragic true story of a man wrongly executed for murder is behind Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Fortune Men.

Nadifa Mohamed first heard of Mahmood Mattan in 2004. The Somali sailor was the unlikely subject of a double-page spread in The Daily Mail. At the time, Mohamed, who is now 40, was a runner for a television company and nearly a decade away from being included on Granta’s prestigious Best of Young British Novelists list. She didn’t, it’s fair to say, know she was stumbling upon a story that would eventually lead her to the Booker Prize shortlist.

Mattan was 28 when he was executed, by hanging, at Cardiff Docks for the murder of a woman he didn’t commit. His arrest, torturously long detention and death are detailed in full colour and with controlled rage by Mohamed, whose two previous books – Black Mamba Boy (2010) and The Orchard of Lost Souls (2013) – has earned her places and prizes from The Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Writing, she tells me, “feels like it must be part of a wider live conversation about power, and how to correct some of the wrongs of the past.” With The Fortune Men, Mohamed restores humanity to an innocent man whose name was misspelled in the newspaper story of his death, as well as laying out – step by step – the miscarriages of justice that led him to the noose.

The book transports the reader to the multicultural bustle of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the late Forties – when Mattan arrived – and early Fifties – when he was killed. Mohamed captures the glint of the streetlight on the wet street cobbles, the racist outbursts that happen between strangers, the close-knit communities that have arrived from elsewhere and are bound together by their stories and the international discord and discontent that have led to their twists of fate.

'My father's one of the same generation. I think that's what made what happened to him so much more shocking, because maybe it could have happened to any of them'

Mohamed, who herself moved to the UK from Somalia when she was four, lets us into the lives and the mindsets of the people who find themselves arriving in this workaday bit of Cardiff. When Mattan stumbles in shoes that are too big for him, because they are all he can afford, we are told: “You cannot look like prey here. You cannot show weakness or your days are numbered, like those of the Somali drunk the police beat to death last year. Mahmood had learnt to do the black man’s walk early on in Cardiff: to walk with his shoulders high, his elbows pointed out, his feet sliding slowly over the ground, his chin buried deep in his collar and his hat low over his face, to give nothing away apart from his masculinity, a human silhouette in motion.”

Mahmood is a gambler, a ‘Fortune Man’ according to those countrymen who stayed in Somalia. He is also a petty thief, a father, a sometime-unfaithful husband and a linguist, who taught himself five languages. After reading the “very cursory” story of his life 17 years ago, Mohamed asked her father, himself a Somali sailor, if he knew the story, and learned something surprising: he had actually known Mattan when both men had lived in Hull.

“It made Mahmood feel very familiar,” she says. “My father's one of the same generation; I understood his merchant sailor life. I think that's what made what happened to him so much more shocking, because maybe it could have happened to any of them.”

It took Mohamed’s father’s death for her to begin writing The Fortune Men in earnest, “submitting to the gnawing fascination I had with this long-forgotten case,” she says. Despite claiming she’s “not an investigator”, her research was thorough: she sifted through case files and records, many of them barely touched since the Fifties, she knocked on doors in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. The process sounds strangely cathartic. “People were very welcoming,” she says. “It was almost like a community activity. I felt it was like a communal thing, a communal work, rather than it being just for me.”

'They were all harmed. All of their lives were ruptured by what happened in 1952'

Through reminiscences she learned that Mattan was always well-dressed, something that comes through clearly in the sumptuous details Mohamed scatters through the novel. Along with the transcripts – “his police interviews from the court case, the trial itself, his meetings with the present doctor” – Mohamed built a character who, for all his failings, is nevertheless a victim of the system to which he has been subjected.

The Fortune Men tells other stories besides that of Mattan – of his wife Laura, a white Welshwoman and mother of three who is subjected to physical and verbal abuse for her marriage; of Violet Volacki, the Jewish shopkeeper based on the murder victim whose own story has been forgotten, and her sister Diana, a war widow whose traumatic life convinces her she is cursed. “I respected them all,” Mohamed says, “and I hope that came through Mahmood was one person who was very much harmed by what happened, but they were all harmed. All of their lives were ruptured by what happened in 1952.”

Mohamed also finely renders the prison wardens who spend their waking hours in Mattan’s company – playing cards, giving him food, cracking jokes – before leading him to his wrongful death. “They’re fictional but the whole process is based on what it was really like,” she says. “I find their behaviour actually quite terrifying. That whole idea of ‘I’m just doing what I’m told to do’. The wardens become an imbodiment of “the injustices that happen because people just do what they're told to do.”

It's not the only thing you should do or could do, as an individual, to to push back against power, but it's one of the things you can do

It is impossible to read The Fortune Men without thinking of the injustices and systemic racism that still hampers lives today. “I wrote it all under a Tory government,” Mohamed says of the novel. “That whole environment has been getting worse and worse and worse. I don't know if it's at its lowest point yet, but we've been living with that hostility for quite a while now.”

Mohamed explains that the Grenfell Tower disaster – which saw the death of at least 72 people, and for whom justice has not delivered – unfolded during this time, along with the Windrush Scandal and countless migrant crises. Has it not, at times, felt overwhelming? “No,” Mohamed replies, “because it's quite a good way of engaging with things that otherwise make you feel quite powerless, or hurt or despairing. So, I find it quite cathartic. It's not the only thing you should do or could do, as an individual, to to push back against power, but it's one of the things you can do.”

Mohamed has previously compared her writing practice to “deep-sea diving”, and her process is similarly immersive: “I squirrel myself away,” she says. “I’ve got to be by myself in a very familiar environment and have a clear scheduled before I can even go where I need to as a writer. I don’t know how people can hold down full-time jobs and childcare and squeeze in two or three hours of writing a day. I’ve got to be in the right zone, it’s very delicate.”

Landing a place on the Booker Prize shortlist – Mohamed is the only British writer on the shortlist this year, and this is her first acknowledgement by the prize – has enabled Mattan’s story to achieve a larger platform. “A reader got in touch to say that she’s going to leave some flowers at Mahmood’s grave. That really made me feel that this is an act of communal grief. Whether you’re Somali or not, there is tragedy,” she says. “His bones are still in this country; it was an unmarked grave and now he has a stone saying: ‘Killed by injustice’. So for the people to go and pay their respects and bear witness, it gives me tingles thinking that’s what the novel has helped to do.”

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more