‘Skill offset by crime cartoonisms’ – The Doll Princess by Tom Benn

It’s 1996 and Manchester is recovering from the recent IRA bomb blast. The vicious murder of a wealthy young Egyptian beauty has got the nationals all stirred up. Bane – or ‘Enry as he is very occasionally known – a young wayward up and comer in the city’s backways and byways is himself pretty stirred up about the death of a young prostitute found out back of the McVities factory down the A6 a ways. Turns out he knew young Alice Willow back in the day when the two of them went to school. Swaggering about Manchester like it was a walk and he was the cock of it, Bane takes time out (working for a club owner would-be gangster called Frank) to investigate what went on with Alice, getting himself caught up with witches and chemists and militia death squads and all manner of no good – and inevitably suffering for his art as he gets his arse kicked from Withington to Deansgate.

Tom Benn’s debut novel is a long overdue good thing in many senses (from the moment David Peace unleashed his Red Riding Quartet I’ve been hankering after someone getting their teeth into Manchester) and there is much to recommend, not least Benn’s sturdy grip on vernacular (not only does The Doll Princess walk like Liam Gallagher, the characters therein frequently talk like Liam Gallagher does as well). As with David Peace, Benn muddies the water of his narrative with a vague whiff of mysticism (a drug dealer known as the witch introduces him to the idea of Burundanga, and the echoes of Burundanga resonate throughout the book). What’s more, he’s a good writer of action – a scene in the top room of a nightclub on Deansgate early in the novel is particularly good.

Where Benn falls down is in elementary plotting 101. It’s fine for his narrator to know things that we don’t and go to places where the reader may not at first quite understand what the point is – but as a device it’s over-used in The Doll Princess – and the result is unsettling and alienating (because, as you read and wonder why Bane is going somewhere for the third of fourth time, you start to ask yourself why Benn can’t at least throw you a bone every once in a while). This wouldn’t be as important, though, if Benn didn’t over-use the happy accident. For example, Bane visits the towerblock where the body of the Egyptian was found and – happy accident! – stumbles over a cache of guns that just happen to form part of the mystery. In future Benn could do with asking himself again and again and again: why is the character doing what he is doing now? Why should the reader care? Have I given them enough? Could I give them more?

Benn has a really great eye for Manchester detail, though:

’11.20pm. Down Chester Road onto Pomona Strand. These were out of commission docks. Not quite Trafford. Not quite Salford. Not even Manchester. A dead space no-man’s-land – half a mile’s worth of abandoned canal tunnel under it.’

But his skill is offset by what feels like crime cartoonisms – Bane gets his arse kicked time and again. He gets punched unconscious twice within forty pages, ends up in fights four times in a day. You ask yourself – really, how often does a person genuinely get punched unconscious in the course of their lives? Twice in a day feels like a lot to swallow. And that’s not taking into account the sheer volume of the dead. Everyone dies. Just what are the police doing? Would such carnage really be treated as jocularly by the fuzz as it appears to be? I don’t think so.   

All told, The Doll Princess feels like a crime novel that shows promise. I’m not quite prepared to jump into the hyperbole wagon that Cathi Unsworth and Niall Griffiths are in, going off their comments on the back cover, but I’d be intrigued to see what Benn does next. And really what else can you ask from a debut?

Any Cop?: An intriguing if uneven Manchester crime debut.

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