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An inside job

Eric Allison plotted his novel on prison complaint forms while he was serving time. Philip Hamer finds out more

Published on July 16th 2008.

An inside job

Despite its glitzy revamp over the last 15 years, Manchester is still a tough and hard city. Home to Brady, Hindley and Shipman, its real-life criminal profile has always seemed to outperform its fictional one – despite some notable triumphs such as the TV series Cracker. But now this imbalance is set to be radically corrected. The superb début novel The Last Straight Face (Old Street, £11.95) by ex-criminal Eric Allison and his crime journalist collaborator Bruce Kennedy Jones has just been released.

“Doing the book helped me through my sentence. It gave some structure to my week. Seeing the characters grow and creating new situations and plots became a means of escape. It certainly helped my mind get beyond the prison cell.”

The story of the novel’s gestation has a plot line worthy of a thriller itself. On the verge of beginning their collaboration, Allison was imprisoned for seven years for his part in a large counterfeiting operation. Losers included Her Majesty’s Government and a Manchester company that saw its account relieved of over a million pounds. Eric was seen as the brains behind the operation and Manchester police said that “he was among the top echelons of British criminals.”

Allison was on remand in Risley so Jones gained access to the prison under the pretext that he was making a programme about a new project that the prison had just introduced. Naturally Eric was chosen as one of the interviewees. The pair were left alone for a couple of hours and the novel was started on the back of a prison complaints form.

“The fact of Eric being away might actually have helped the book get written,” says Jones. “We built up a routine based on when he could get to a prison phone and we sorted things out so that he could make longer calls than usual on Risley’s pay phone system.” Jones prefers not to elaborate on how he managed this. He goes on to describe how the novel evolved:

“The way it worked was this: we’d map out the plot, divide the work and map out a few thousand words separately. Eric couldn’t type then, so I sent him in some pads of numbered carbon paper. He wrote in long hand and sent the top copy to me. He’d edit my stuff and I’d edit his.

“We spoke every Sunday at 10am, wrote up our material and stuck it in the post to arrive Tuesday morning. This gave us till the next call – Wednesday evening – to get our heads around each others’ pages and then discuss them on the phone. Then we’d write or rewrite our own material and get stuff in the post for Friday morning. The parcels arrived in London [Jones’s base] and Risley on Saturday, and the discussions and editing continued the following Sunday.”

Allison sees the process as extremely cathartic:

“Doing the book helped me through my sentence,” he says. It gave some structure to my week. Seeing the characters grow and creating new situations and plots became in some strange way a means of escape. It certainly helped my mind get beyond the prison cell.”

Allison, 66, has served 16 years in prison for theft-related offences, so his novel drips with authenticity. It also weaves Manchester effortlessly into the narrative in a way that doesn’t over-exploit its clichéd 'Gunchester' infamy. The bold and complex storyline follows the narrator as he is released from an 18 month sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, only to find that while he was imprisoned, his nephew has been shot dead and his wife and children have vanished. As the plot snakes through the city’s underworld, Allison creates a dark and dangerous Manchester, using spare, taut prose and terse dialogue reminiscent of another ex-criminal novelist, the great US Noir writer Ed Bunker. The result is a dark, fast, unfashionably humane and humorous book.

Allison was released after three and a half years and began working with Bruce again. They collaborated on Five Live's Doing Time (a series of well-received programmes about life inside) and on a programme on the 1990 Strangeways riots. Then in 2003 Allison became the first-ever prison correspondent in the national press when he started writing for The Guardian. He and his collaborator are now working in a much more conventional way on the follow-up to The Last Straight Face, a novel called Fat Blackmail.

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WayneJuly 16th 2008.

Interesting article about the murky side of life, a genre which Manchester, sadly, seems to specialise in.

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