The Doll Princess, By Tom Benn


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Imoved to Manchester in 1998, two years after The Doll Princess is set. While I recognise the areas – and accents – in Tom Benn's debut novel, the immediate aftermath of the 1996 IRA bomb is something I never saw; nor the grimy Northern gangland he portrays in this swaggering book. Whether Stockport lad Benn (born in 1987) has seen much of the latter, given his tender years, really doesn't matter. He gives such an adrenalin-soaked expedition to the seedier side of suburbs such as Wythenshawe, Hulme and Rusholme, and to the nightclubs and penthouses of Deansgate and central Manchester, that I was just pleased to be along for the ride.

The guide for this post-Madchester mystery tour is Henry Bane, a mid-twenties small-town boy, medium-grade thug, and a cut above both. Despite the casual violence and the blind eye he turns to suffering, he is a beguiling character, not least because there are certain crimes against certain people he can't walk away from. In one July week, his eye is caught by two newspaper stories about the murders of two very different women. One is an Egyptian heiress, the other a young prostitute found, bathetically, outside the McVitie's biscuit factory.

The first is a stranger to Bane; the second is Alice, an ex-girlfriend. As he tries to find out what happened to her, he crosses the paths of hard men, broken women, drug dealers and human traffickers and makes new enemies out of old friends, all to a soundtrack of rap – Mobb Deep, Biggie Smalls and Organized Konfusion – Britpop, and even Elvis. I've never wanted to listen to the soundtrack to a book so much.

Another element that stands out in this madly bloody but sometimes brilliant book is how the characters speak. Accents are notoriously tricky on the page, but Benn captures the south Manchester patter impressively. True, some of the punctuation, or lack of it, is disconcerting, but Bane and pals aren't the type to wait around for apostrophes to catch up with their rapid-fire chat.

Having gulped down The Doll Princess and been left lurching over the drop at the end, I'm pleased to see the words "Bane: Book One" on the cover. His Manchester is definitely worth another visit.