Tom Benn on Influence, Inspiration and Writing Manchester
April 5, 2013 | by Faber Social
Red Harvest was my first Dashiell Hammett. The murder of a corrupt town’s sole civic reformer (‘a lousy liberal’), who also happens to be the son of its compromised and ailing czar, provides the catalyst for a war between bent officials and the mercenaries they had once hired to crush a strike, but who have long since taken the town for their own. The czar offers an outsider the job of destroying his enemies and reclaiming his town, but the outsider refuses, and ends up playing all factions against each other in an attempt to punish the guilty.
Among other adaptations and derivatives, the novel likely inspired Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, at least two Coen Brothers’ films, and quite possibly the late ‘80s Patrick Swayze classic, Roadhouse – which uses the tropes of a Western, but follows the novel’s basic set-up close enough.
But reading the novel initially I wasn’t struck by its familiarity. My brain wasn’t consciously following the chain links back to their source. The story’s setting of ‘Personville’ (or ‘Poisonville’, as it’s known to some of its inhabitants), provided a background so foregrounded, so integral to the drama, that for me, the story was new. Another instant draw was the witty but often inscrutable interior of the outsider, the nameless narrator, the Continental Op.
I liked how Red Harvest began with an inversion: our detective is the one being interrogated – here by a civilian woman, their mutual suspicion of one another overlapping beneath a stilted current of small-talk.
Then, Red Harvest abandons the whodunit format fifty pages in, and has the Op solve the murder with another three-quarters of the book to go. The early episodic nature of the story reflects its publication (it was originally serialised in Black Mask magazine), but when read right through, this early resolution seems considered and brave. And now that the murder-mystery element is gone, we really get down to business. The town ‘bleeds plenty’. There is a power struggle between the bad and the worse. But Poisonville is too mired in its own evil. Much is done, little is achieved. No closure. No redemption. The fatalism appealed to me. This was the compelling arc of noir-tragedy, played out on a personal and political level, without the overwrought prose later authors brought to it.
Hammett based Poisonville on a small mining town in Montana which he had visited while working as a strike breaker. Its menacing topography seems to infect its population and features heavily in the plot. People say a good story can be set anywhere. I don’t think this is true. Of course you can do Shakespeare on a council estate or on Mars; the essential components of any dramatic conflict can probably be transposed to any real or imagined time or place. But that’s not all a story is.
My influences and inspirations aren’t just geographic, but Manchester is the blood of my novels. That doesn’t mean I feel any obligation to realism. Their Manchester isn’t the ‘real’ Manchester, although writing them was an opportunity to explore from other perspectives, places in the city I visited regularly in my childhood that no longer exist. My novels, The Doll Princess and Chamber Music, both set in this city in the ‘90s, feature all kinds of interloping weirdness, people and things that aren’t indigenous to the layers of the city that my own narrator, Bane, belongs to. Sometimes it is Bane that no longer belongs. This thread runs right down to the books’ soundtracks (American hip-hop and soul feature more often than Madchester and Britpop). But, the more I try and defamiliarise and weave my own fictions around such a distinctive time and place, the more I know that my characters’ stories could not work as successfully anywhere else. My characters are too rooted in their environment. Just like the corrupt factions in Red Harvest, they go to war over a decayed landscape like it’s the centre of the universe: a hermetic world with its own inescapable pull, its own rhythms and histories and languages and codes. A strong setting is important to me, in much of my reading enjoyment as well as my writing, and the vivid, claustrophobic rendering of a city found in Red Harvest, was pretty much exactly how I wanted to represent the environment at times in my own stuff. Occasionally, I do need to add a little tenderness and durability to all the hostility. The Continental Op burns all his bridges, futilely raising Poisonsville to the ground in his attempted purge. However, in my case, there needs to be a smidge of Bane’s Manchester left for the next book.
Tom Benn will be reading at Faber Social Presents Crime on 7th May.