2012 has so far been a year of words. I've spent much of it writing what amounts to over 15,000 of them, for both this place and Front Row Reviews as well as academic assignments, and much of what remained reading more than that - research for the just-mentioned, alongside a pebble-dash of books recommended me in working towards a PhD proposal I've since postponed, not to mention making what I can of the access attained by obscene tuition fees to the untouched shelves of marxist literature in my university's library. But the month saw something else worth noting and writing about: an overdue return to (reading) fiction.
A happy return, as it happens: The Doll Princess - whose author Tom Benn turned 24 last month - is a debut novel that offers 290 or so very turnable pages of a murder mystery backdropped against gangland seediness, driven by minimally-punctuated north-western dialogue and a cast of loveable lummoxes that characterise its vivid, torn universe.
Narrating from the centre of this universe - which in the particular sense is a Manchester shocked to its core by the 1996 IRA bomb - is Henry Bane, "a lad from Wythie who muscles folks for a bit o cash". Reading a newspaper column on the murder of an old love from his youth sends Bane's interests on a course of conflict with those of gangster employer Frank, who turns out to be the least of his troubles, since others are far heavier and more pressing: a long line of gun-running, drug-peddling and human-trafficking bad lads await him, as he investigates his first love's death like some self-consciously reckless Philip Marlowe.
With Bane, Benn wants and has it both ways: his protagonist is disciplined and tee-total, clean and conscientious enough to be admirable, with an eye for details - especially the sartorial and the musical (overly eager to replace his ruined Harrington, telling us like some clinical shooting script what song is playing in the background of an otherwise chaotic set-piece). But Benn also makes his leading male fallible, notably smaller than the villains around him and all-too-aware of it - he cites Cagney but he's more like Bogart as a good guy. Verbal wit and a tactical nous provide ample (and comedic) compensation for a body increasingly pummelled as he descends into the literal and figurative depths of a labyrinthine, sewer-like canal tunnel, punishing himself as he nears a delirious, Zippo-lit encounter with a face from his past. (This emotional climax is masterfully done, haunting and hurting in equal measure.)
Its Manchester is one of transition. The real-life bomb that contextualises it is treated at the very least ambivalently. Bane himself strategically stays clear of comment - when he sarcastically notes it's been "a fucking nuisance" he's speaking on behalf of others. But there are other transitory tensions present, pointed at throughout a work very deliberately placed in history - past enough to be familiar, recent enough not to be period, and fully ripe for knowing winks. Questioning some "Nasty Nas" imitator playing on a tape in his pal Maz's car, Bane is told he is listening to Jay-Z, to which he replies quizzically: "Who?"
Not long before this, Bane must replace his first choice for tea (not dinner), an English chippy predictably and traditionally closed on a Sunday, with an "open till late" Chinese takeaway. In there, a film plays on the portable Goodmans on the counter: a Cagney number, a musical one at that. Cagney himself always longed to be a song-and-dance man more than the "Little Tough Jimmy, the grapefruit chucker" that Bane prefers. In a world seemingly precluding any fluidity between gangsters and dancers, Cagney's brutish machismo and tap-dancing prowess were never allowed to coincide, and suitably, Bane's task is most dangerous not whilst inhibited by his gangland comfort zone, but when he steps beyond it, into a developing cosmopolis chosen as a dumping ground by transglobal capitalism.
Bane's menacing surrogate father, Frank, recalls Blue Velvet's namesake Booth, interrupting confrontations by mouthing out-of-sync lyrics to the songs he loves (Presley replaces Orbison), while a scene involving walk-in mirrored wardrobes cleverly updates those scenes in Lynch's film in which Kyle Maclachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont spies on his femme fatale. Beautifully put together, these scenes betray Benn's eclectic influences and puts the book not only in line with the hardboiled detective fiction of Hammett and Chandler, but their cinematic equivalents and neo-noir.
Swaggering through the liminal space of an outlawed underworld (embodied by the likes of Terence Formby's Kitchen Club, the Florencia health spa and that "dead space no-man's-land" that provides the book its climactic set-piece) we get a real sense of danger and destruction flooding in, and from the sixth chapter onwards, Benn's blink-and-miss caper-with-a-heart is a distinctive opening to a planned trilogy. Lending itself so well to an adaptation, I wouldn't be surprised if the film rights are bought before all three are out.
Posted Thursday, January 26, 2012