Tom Benn's Most Misunderstood Criminals

Tom Benn's Most Misunderstood Criminals

Ted Lewis’ Jack Carter, immortalised by Michael Caine in the 1971 film adaptation, Get Carter, was a big influence on my series protagonist, Henry Bane. It gave me the model: working-class northern criminal as vengeful detective. Carter is a gang factotum in the Big Smoke, visiting his hometown (a never-named Scunthorpe) after his brother’s suspicious death. The local criminal fraternity don’t appreciate Carter rooting around. Mayhem ensues, escalates; British noir is born. Carter finds truth, but no comfort. I guess Carter’s misunderstood only in the sense that he’s brutal but has a quasi-righteous mission, and a moral compass. Sort of.

Also in the antihero mould is Pete Bondurant, a 6’6”, forlorn French-Canadian; a mafia/CIA killer, with a weakness for strong redheads and rescuing cats. He makes a discrepant appearance in James Ellroy’s White Jazz, before being recast as a protagonist in American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. Pete changes history, aids the Kennedy assassination, hates Castro, and commits mass murder on a boat during a heart attack. But he did rescue that cat.

Frederick Clegg from John Fowles’ The Collector is another literary criminal with a famous British screen incarnation (this time from Terence Stamp). Clegg abducts beautiful middle class art student Miranda in the hope she will fall in love with him. Certainly not misunderstood along the lines of the aforementioned roguish hard men with hearts, Fred’s perhaps misunderstood all the same. His dynamic with Miranda is satirical commentary on ‘60s class anxieties as post-war British society splintered. Though Fred’s final actions still remain haunting.

Flannery O’Conner sometimes reads best when wilfully misread. Her second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, advocates perhaps the most unpleasant shade of backwater Bible-belt Christianity since the Westboro Baptist Church (founded five years before the book was published in 1960). But the murderous teenage antihero, Tarwater, might be another misunderstood criminal. His violence is conditioned; ungovernable forces shaped him. We follow Tarwater as he escapes his kidnapper-cum-prophet great uncle and goes to the city. The might of his great uncle’s indoctrination proves strong. A secular schoolteacher wrestles for Tarwater’s mind, not soul, much to everybody’s undoing.

Jason Compson IV is a vindictive piece of work—basically Emmerdale’s Cain Dingle of Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner unleashes him in part three of The Sound and the Fury, and his infamous first sentence, (“Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say”) immediately conveys Jason’s unapologetic bile and rancour. His crimes include emotional cruelty, misappropriation of child maintenance, blackmail and human castration. And as a tot, he was a whinging telltale (see the short story ‘That Evening Sun’ for confirmation). He solves many ugly family mysteries from the preceding sections—the filterless consciousness of mentally disabled brother, Benji, and the trauma trance of second brother, Quentin. Jason is choked with hate for everybody. But by now, we can see how he got there. His bitterness towards sister Caddy—she’s somebody to blame for his life, for being trapped supporting their poisonous family. And again we pity and understand (without excusing). So maybe he’s misunderstood, too.

Trouble Man, the third book in Tom Benn’s underworld crime series set in 1990s Manchester, is out now, published by Jonathan Cape. The second book in the series, Chamber Music, is out in paperback (Vintage).