Book review: Chamber Music by Tom Benn

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LIKE a bullet mailed in a Jiffy bag, snug yet deadly, packed with portent, Tom Benn’s first novel, The Doll Princess, sent its warning along the shelves of all respectable high street bookshops.

Chamber Music by Tom Benn

Jonathan Cape, 323pp, 

British crime writing had rarely tasted so brutally believable: gun metal tainted with blood and kisses.

None of that bloody, chewed reality is forsaken in his knuckle-crunched, street-smart follow-up, a requiem for old decencies. In Chamber Music (chamber, as in the barrel of a gun), the hard men are tougher, the mood music darker, Manchester’s scum-de-la-scum consorting with other low-life – misfits, junkies, professional guns – stirring a feud oceans more bloody.

Cue Henry Bane, aged 28 – a hard man with heart. It’s February 1998, the eve of St. Valentine’s Day (think massacres!). Henry’s father, Henry Snr (for this is a world of family dynasties and traditions), has just been buried. At the post-funeral bun feast the novel’s principals make appearances, key storylines are set up.

Benn, the author, gives Bane, the “hero”, all the mouth music. He’s the narrator, straight-shooting, droll; you think you can trust him. He knows how to edit himself down to snappy observations: “She didn’t smell cheap”, or “We had a week together. Eight years ago. It wasn’t a summer of love. It wasn’t even love.”

Such dry asperity, the shrug in the vocals, is pure Sam Spade. Has Henry been swotting his Dashiell Hammett? His woman “eight years ago” was Roisin. Sex on legs. Their affair had been torrid, unfinished business. Now he’s with Jan, older, steadier, with a troublesome teenage son. Henry’s mate Gordon, Roisin’s brother, is due out of jail.

Throughout chapter one, we await his entrance, but, when the door is thumped, it’s Roisin. Gorgeous as ever, hauling a hunk of beef called Dan. Dan is bleeding, messing the floor. A gang has been chasing them north from the Smoke.

Why has Dan been used for target practice? Will Roisin stand by her man? – or perhaps muscle in on old flame Henry, still on heat for her – though he spends the night of the funeral on a job, in the course of which a Komodo Dragon mauls his mate Maz. In the crime stakes Henry and Gordon (straight into fiddling upon release) are middle management. Abrafo – Mr Big – wants a slice of the club scene, with plans for Henry to run the action. Hagfish, his rival, a Yardie smack-head, and the Komodo Dragon’s keeper, has other ideas. A proliferating turf war is on the cards.

Lots of gang action, gun threats and menaces ensue – abettted by personal acts of vengeance. Henry wants Hagfish to pay for Maz. The kids on the street, apprentice thugs, are practising attitude and knife craft, wrecking motors. Cops don’t figure. In the downtrodden neighbourhood ordinary people live mouldy lives of repressed oblivion and acceptance. Meanwhile, the London boys are coming.

Meanwhile too, we’re zipping back to July 1990 in Henry’s memory, slabs of which are intercut with the 1998 crime scene. The music, the fashion, Henry’s old man still alive, and Rosin about to scorch through his life like an A-bomb test, blowing hot.

Tom Benn makes great use of this device – charting changes in mores and values, the evolution in popular culture, the once summer breeze a much headier whiff than the less intoxicating brutalities of the winter of ’98.

It’s all about dazzle in the detail – and while the novel is less than original in its portrayal of the modus operandi of gangland crime — it is in its capturing of an era, two eras in fact, that it excels, doing for the Nineties what Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street did for the Sixties, a kaleidoscope of culture expressed, not explained (“Up terraces of slums, young gum-chewing mothers sit/Outside on their thrones of light… The dust so fine you hardly notice you have grown too old to cry out for change.” )

Blazoning change, in time and circumstance, and its lack, finding a measure of the paths, even the journeys, his protagonists have chosen, is Benn’s achievement.

As with sometimes revolted fascination, you watch Henry’s thuggery, sensing his love for both Roisin and Jan, and unravelling reasons for Roisin’s return, it is not their storylines but their characters, and the potent, nebulous air they breathe – so brilliantly evoked by a writer who atomises reality, turning speech into riveting rap – that keeps us hypnotically immersed. It’s so good, I almost forgot to breathe.