JUST when you thought all serious crime fiction had to be Scandinavian, ideally featuring a trademark jumper or a dragon tattoo, along comes our own hardbitten contender to shoot their northern lights out.
Yet The Doll Princess didn’t get to be the Daily Mirror’s recent Book of the Week by being all Ian McEwan Slums It In Hulme.
Forget Mankell, think Manc. Hail the ultimate Wythenshawe anti-hero, Henry Bane, and his bruising dark night of the soul in the aftermath of the 1996 IRA bombing. Expect gut-wrenching casual violence, slaughtered prostitutes and socialites, human trafficking and raw sexual exploitation... well you would, wouldn’t you? Entirely out of left-field is the shimmering hyper-streetwise, dialogue-led prose. Compulsive stuff.
Like the best crime fiction, Tom Benn’s debut novel, The Doll Princess, is a quest. The prostitute, whose brutal murder is overshadowed in the media by that of an Egyptian socialite, was once Bane’s childhood sweetheart. He abandons his job as a leg-man for one of Manchester’s biggest gangsters to try and discover the truth. Mayhem ensues, the body count soars and plot momentum is terrifically assured.
Like David Peace’s Red Riding Trilogy, period setting is an essential part of the noir poetry. Or that is the intention. The author was still at primary school when the city centre got explosively rearranged and, though it is atmospherically rich, the historical resonances mainly extend to cursory name-checking music of the time. And someone convince me: Were folk calling north of Piccadilly the Northern Quarter mid-Nineties?
Still I see the reasoning – it’s before the North West’s answer to Gotham City supposedly got tamed by gentrification. Yet the gun-laden gangland underbelly exposed still seems pretty current and when a sleazy hangout on Deansgate called the Kitchen Club gets obliterated in the novel I was definitely feeling dizzily out of time.
In recent years the likes of Joe Stretch and Gwen Riley have debuted with existential tales of Rainy City angst, picking up critical plaudits and credible sales. All just a bit solipsistic, though. Benn’s different. Unexpectedly so with his background. Stockport-raised and in person a mite dandified, he’s an alumnus of the University of East Anglia creative writing school, with a Malcolm Bradbury bursary and a Jonathan Cape contract by the age of 24.
Yet The Doll Princess didn’t get to be the Daily Mirror’s recent Book of the Week by being all Ian McEwan Slums It In Hulme. OK, Henry Bane (set to feature in a trilogy) sounds suspiciously like Henbane, that poisonous stinking nightshade used to poison Hamlet’s Dad, but debilitating Burundanga is the baddies’ drug of choice in the mean streets (and crescents) Bane must tread. That South American narcotic turns its victims into human puppets, but in this narrative it’s Bane’s inspired creator pulling all the strings.
The Doll Princess (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)