The Murders of Boysie Singh, first published in 1962, is a classic for several reasons. It tells the true but almost unbelievable story of a Trinidadian gang leader Boysie Singh. For more than a decade he and his ruthless henchmen terrorised Port of Spain and the seas around it, controlled gambling dens, night-clubs and brothels and dealt out savage punishment who got in his way. And there were still more sinister legends -- that he murdered scores of illegal immigrants between Trinidad and Venezuela, that he carried on wholesale piracy in the Gulf of Paria. Arrested at last on a charge of murdering an informer in his gang, he was tried twice -- the first jury disagreed -- and sentenced to death; but the Court of Appeal, in a sensational decision, found him not guilty. Finally after a bizarre interlude as a lay preacher, he became involved in the mysterious disappearance of the dancer Thelma Haynes, and in 1957 was executed for her murder.
The story focuses on themes that remain pertinent to Trinidadian culture and reminds that current alarms about crime and an escalating murder rate are very far from new. Bickerton recognises in Boysie Singh a particularly Trinidadian villain, who evaded the law in part because of a popular ambivalence about crime. What was seen as “smartness” in challenging a deeply hierarchical colonial society was often admired, even if its victims were not from the elite. Like V.S. Naipaul’s Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystic Masseur, Bickerton’s Boysie Singh was a shapeshifter who metamorphosed from rural small-time crook, pirate, saga-boy urban gangster, brothel-keeper and, when the law closed in, to an itinerant preacher who had found God.
The Murders of Boysie Singh is also a classic because it is a thoughtful and carefully shaped work whose author, then a practicing journalist in Barbados, was well aware of his literary precursors in the shape of Henry Fielding’s great satiric novel The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild (1743). There are elements in the book that no doubt the older Derek Bickerton, who led a distinguished academic career in Hawaii, would have flinched at – but the political incorrectness of some of the views expressed goes along with a refreshing curiosity about Trinidadian society which is always, ultimately, sympathetic with the people rather than the elite.