Updated: Tuesday, 7th July 2020 @ 11:04pm

‘Manchester is the blood of my novels’: Tom Benn’s Chamber Music explores dark and gritty ‘90s underworld

‘Manchester is the blood of my novels’: Tom Benn’s Chamber Music explores dark and gritty ‘90s underworld

By Tui Benjamin

Stockport-born writer Tom Benn’s new novel Chamber Music, published last week, is the second in a Manchester noir crime series which draws on the city’s ‘unglamorous and ever-present’ criminal underbelly for inspiration.

Set in the Manchester of 1998 and sequel to The Doll Princess, Chamber Music follows anti-hero protagonist Henry Bane’s involvement in gangland conflicts and the loyalties of lost love, all steeped in the half-forgotten history of the city’s underworld.

Tom, born in 1987, has strong memories of visiting the deck-access flats in Hulme and remembers how radically the place changed in the ‘90s.

“There was nothing gritty about my experiences,” he said. 

“These were just times and territories I wanted to explore again from other perspectives.”

Tom found himself drawn to the lost landscapes of Manchester’s geography but wanted to avoid a ‘Manchester lore’ he felt had been exhaustively mythologised.

“It’s important and inescapable, but there is little new to say so I address a lot of the city’s cultural history peripherally, weaving my own fiction around it,” he said.

“I also tried to bring in music and pop culture references that are less associated with such a distinctive time and place – there’s more soul and hip-hop than Madchester and Britpop in Chamber Music.”

Feeling no obligation to realism, Chamber Music plays with geography to make Bane’s dark universe come to life.

“Bane’s world is probably more heightened and stylised than traditionally realist,” Tom said.

“Manchester is an integral part of Bane’s character in the sense that he’s a product of his environment.

“It might make him easier to relate to if you’re mutually connected to his home, or recognise some of his stomping grounds.”

With the 1996 IRA bombing a significant moment in Manchester’s recent history, Chamber Music’s temporal setting indicates a preoccupation with a city in violent transition.

“The bombing scarred the city centre and altered it forever,” he said.

“Regeneration had begun earlier but was accelerated by the bombing and after all the investment I think some places became more anonymous.

“Charting the transition was for me an opportunity to explore the cracks which run through different communities and different layers of society.

A novel which features heavy violence, Tom’s use of a criminal as a protagonist acts as a way of crossing these social boundaries.

“Although Bane’s Manchester is fiercely tribal, he can still go places where an honest police detective couldn’t,” he said.

“Generally, it’s the unappealing I find appealing.

“The ordinary ugliness. And the lives steeped in it, by choice or not.”

Chamber Music uses Mancunian vernacular to depict speech in an honest and natural way.

“Regional dialect roots voices in a specific place and time and can make their world seem claustrophobic to outsiders,” he said.

“I love the dramatic possibilities of this. Dialogue drives my books and I want it to look and sound a certain way.”

Now living away from the city of his birth, Tom has no plans to return in the foreseeable future.

“I find having a bit of distance from Manchester helps me write about it,” he said.

“This way, I don’t get locked into the present reality of the place, which while fascinating and forever evolving, isn’t the Manchester I’m exploring in the Bane books – at least, not yet.”

Currently working on the fourth Bane book, he says there may be even more to come.

“After that, there might be a historical novel,” he said. “Set in Manchester. Obviously.”

Chamber Music (Jonathan Cape, £12.99) is out now.

Picture courtesy of Tom Benn, with thanks.

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