This debut novel from Joseph Knox is a dark and existential policier set in a modern Manchester where the neon lights of drug fuelled night clubs cast their garish glow over abandoned nineteenth century warehouses flanking polluted rivers which once powered the cotton mills that made the city great. Out in the suburbs, in houses built for long dead mill-owners, girls barely past their GCSEs jostle each other to get the attention of the organised crime barons who control the flow of narcotics and young flesh.
Aidan Waits is a young policeman who has a liking for pharmaceutical products that anaesthetize him from life. All is well until he is snared in a sting. He is caught sampling marching powder from the police evidence locker, and he is, as they say, bang to rights. He is given a grim choice by his boss. Option one is that his corruption is made public, but he will then be suspended and disappear into the darkness of the Manchester night. Beneath this façade, however, he will actually be working to bring down one of the most dangerous and powerful of the gang bosses. Option two is similar, except that he will be hauled through the courts and given serious jail time. And we all know what happens to policemen when they are thrown into prison.
So, Waits plays a dangerous double game which involves being undercover yet in full view. This paradox is essential. Obviously drug lord Zain Carver will know that Waits is a suspended copper; the deception will only work if Waits can convince the gangster that he is prepared to damage his former employers with leaked information. It requires no acting ability whatsoever for Waits to appear dissolute, addicted and troubled – that is his normal persona. However, a big problem looms. A rich and influential Member of Parliament has “lost” his teenage daughter. Isabelle Rossitter is one of the satellites fizzing around the planet Carver. Daddy is desperate to get her back, and Waits is given the task.
To say that Waits is a complex character is an understatement to rival Laurence Oates’ gentle assertion that he was “just going outside, and may be some time.” Waits’ childhood is never far from his thoughts, and those thoughts are not positive. He and his little sister were effectively abandoned by a mother who simply didn’t want them. Footsteps echoing along the cold and love starved corridors of institutional homes still ring in his ears, and the distant rejection isn’t just a scar – it is an open wound.
When a grossly polluted brick of heroin cuts a fatal swathe through a teenage party, the result is every bit as deadly as an American High School shooting. In consequence, Waits is cut adrift by both his police handler and his underworld connections. Death stalks his every move, and he finds himself one of the few remaining pieces on the board in a deadly endgame. Waits lurches back and forth through a nightmare world of abusive sex, wasted lives, casual violence and police corruption. The novel scarcely ever emerges from the flickering strobe-lit decadence of the Manchester night. There are times when Knox writes with the kind of savage poetry that reminded me very much of the great Derek Raymond.
“ The daylight was awful. It floodlit the insane, the terminally ill, turned loose again for the day, laughing and crying and pissing their pants through the streets. It was like the lights going up at last orders, turning the women from beautiful to plain, exposing the men for what they all are at their worst. Ugly, identical.”
This is a brutal, clever and beautifully written book. Knox hands Waits a guttering candle of compassion, and he manages to keep it alight despite gusts of wind that carry the reek of decay, hatred, perversion and lust. It is scarcely credible that this is a debut novel. Knox has penned a black tale which is certainly not a comfort read. There are passages which made me physically wince, but the author has the confidence to give us an ending, once the mayhem has died down, which is both bitter-sweet and poignant. As Milton wrote, at the conclusion of Samson Agonistes:
“His servants he with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event:
With peace and consolation hath dismist,
And calm of mind all passion spent.”
Sirens is published by Doubleday, and will be available on 12th January