Written by Tom Benn — Chamber Music is the second gritty thriller to feature Tom Benn’s protagonist Henry Bane. The first was the The Doll Princess. I didn’t get a chance to read it, but it generated a buzz and was nominated for the Dylan Thomas and Portico prizes. So big things are expected of the author’s latest work.
The setting is Manchester, and the action starts at Henry’s father’s wake. It’s February 1998 and Bane has moved on from minor criminality – which would be selling ecstasy in the clubs at night whilst working at his father’s record stall in the day – to going full-time for local gangster Abrafo. Henry is expecting his friend Gordon, who’s a bit of a headcase, to return from prison. Instead ex-flame Roisin arrives, up from London, with her current boyfriend Dan.
Their arrival spells trouble because back in 1990 Roisin and Bane fell for each other, and neither has really gotten over the split. Dan, a customs officer, is wounded, and though they keep putting Bane off, he knows a gunshot when he sees one. If Roisin’s return wasn’t complicated enough, it looks as if Bane will have a gang war on his hands. A yardie has appeared on the scene going by the name of Hagfish. He’s taken territory from a rival gang, and he’s not going to stop there.
Bane is nearly shot in his first encounter with Hagfish, and his mate Maz is bitten by the gangster’s Komodo Dragon. Hagfish seems to run his crew on a combination of insane bravery, strong weed and a toxic home brew called Berta’s War Tonic.
Pretty soon Bane is in over his head. He’s got to stop Gordon from assaulting people, open up a new club for Abafro – hopefully without it being raided either by the police or by his rivals – and convince his current girlfriend Jan that he’s not interested in Roisin. He also needs to persuade himself that this is true! Meanwhile, there are more London yardies arriving to find Dan, and Hagfish is getting reckless in his pursuit of Abafro’s empire. It’s Bane’s job to keep everybody safe, but that looks incredibly difficult. When things go wrong they go very badly wrong…
The main narrative drive is interspersed with flashbacks to when Bane and Roisin first met. These really fleshed out the characters and slowed up the pace of the story, which is a good thing because it hurtles quickly along. It’s not often I want that to happen, so it’s a mark of how much I enjoyed those scenes.
Benn has a great ear for dialogue, and his use of the Mancunian vernacular as well as the Jamaican patois spoken by the yardies really makes the book stand out. Having grown up in and around the city I can vouch for the authenticity of his voice. Reading the book brought back memories of going clubbing in Ancoats, and the city centre, around the time the book is set.
Manchester has perhaps been a little overlooked in the current Brit Grit crime writing scene, which is surprising considering how much Britain’s other cities looked towards it for music, fashion, football and club culture during the 80s and 90s. This excellent book goes some way to redressing the balance. It’s released on 3 January.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars