A confident, powerful, dark debut crime novel that paints a strikingly seedy picture of Manchester’s underworld.
A proof copy of this book was placed into my hands by a buddy who works in publishing, who assured me that it’s set to make a big impact this year. Having read it, I agree. Those like me with a taste for bleak noir will likely be blown away.
Sirens begins by introducing us to its hero, Aiden Waits, sprawled unconscious on a cold wet Manchester pavement. This turns out to be pretty par for the course for Aiden, who is, to put it mildly, a rather screwed-up fellow. He’s a disgraced detective, suspended for stealing cocaine from evidence, and now on an undercover mission to flush out some dirty cops working for local drug lord Zain Carver. Keeping himself going with speed and booze, he spends his days hanging around bars and clubs observing drug deals, until he’s summoned to meet David Rossiter MP, Justice Secretary and thoroughly dodgy bloke, to pick up an extra objective – to keep tabs on Rossiter’s runaway teenage daughter Isabelle, currently in hiding with Carver.
The novel is drenched with noirish tropes. The flawed hero, the drink, the bars, the femmes fatales, the corruption, the rain, the taut staccato style – it’s all reminiscent of past noir classics, from Chandler through to Rankin. But it does remain fresh in spite of that, perhaps because Manchester is an unexplored setting for all of this, or perhaps thanks to the sheer vigour of Knox’s writing.
Waits is a great protagonist. We deplore many of his actions, and he’s so damaged, and weak at times, that he can be frustrating, but above all I sympathised with him. He still retains an essential goodness and kindness throughout; we see that he truly cares for others, and feels remorse for his mistakes.
Sirens is full of other vivid characters besides Waits, from Carver and Rossiter to Waits’ gruffly enigmatic boss Superintendent Parrs, the misshapen henchman Grip, and, of course, the ‘sirens’ of the title, the women working as Carver’s drug couriers. These women, Sarah Jane, Catherine and Isabelle, are rounded, nuanced, beautifully-drawn creations – something that’s actually pretty rare in this genre.
The plot of Sirens is comprised of many different plates that Knox manages expertly to keep spinning. While reading I was occasionally as confused as Aiden is as he struggles to get a grip on the whirl of events through the fug of drink and drugs, trying to deal with police corruption, tainted narcotics, child abuse, murder, gang warfare… But every question is answered by the end, every ’t’ crossed and ‘i’ dotted in a very satisfying way. The hold that the visceral, intelligent plot had over me was further tightened by Knox’s punchy style and the short chapters, which kept me turning the pages late into the night.
It’s hard to believe that this is Joseph Knox’s first novel (although he was apparently the Waterstones crime buyer, so he must know his stuff). I thoroughly enjoyed Sirens, and strongly recommend it, with the caveat that it really is relentlessly dark and grim, so be wary if you prefer a lighter read. This one will really haunt you and stay with you. Anticipation for Aiden Waits’s next outing is high indeed.
Doubleday | 2017 | 400p | Paperback | Buy here