Sirens, the debut novel from Joseph Knox, has hit the crime fiction world like a cruise missile in these first days of 2017. On one level a police procedural, Sirens takes off in several different directions, and is full of wickedly sharp prose and a kind of grim poetry that shines an unforgiving light on modern Manchester and its criminal underworld. You can read our review of the book here, but it is a pure pleasure to have the author answering a few questions.
Tell us something about your background, and how you came to be a writer.
I began writing from a very young age. I was an insomniac as a kid and my parents quickly realised that giving me books and notebooks would stop me wandering round the house at night making trouble. I was sketching out short stories, comedy routines and characters as soon as I could hold a pen. Every word of it was shit – but it was a great early lesson in what writing really is: sitting alone for many hours, trying to reach that perfect moment where you forget you’re a person, forget you’re a boy in his bedroom writing, and begin to inhabit whatever world you’re writing about.
For readers who have yet to meet Aidan Waits, run through his CV.
Aidan is already on his very last chance as a detective when he’s caught stealing drugs from evidence. Although he uses substances, the reasons for his theft aren’t so cut and dry. He’s already an outsider. An unnatural fit for the job, he has a keen eye for detail and human frailty but is disconnected from those around him and filled with anger. The source of this anger, and Aidan’s self-destructive tendencies, is a key plot point of the book. There are flashes that he might be a keen detective, even a good man, but due to several things, might be too compromised to do the right thing.
It seems from Sirens that you have a love-hate relationship with Manchester. Give us some idea of your impressions of the city. Was it a wrench to move to London, or a relief?
A perceptive question! I’d say my relationship with Manchester leans more towards love. I grew up in Stoke on Trent and, to me, Manchester was the big city. It was where I dreamt of running away to, where I did run away to when the time came. It was the first place I ever really had my heart broken. The first place I had my nose broken. I failed in every way possible when I lived there – financially, romantically and personally. But I always appreciated it; to be surrounded by beautiful buildings, many of which clashed with garish modern things; to be surrounded by more art, artists, love and imagination than I could understand; to walk from one side of the city to another over the course of several hours, watching all kinds of strange, new people. The more I write and think about it, the more I love it. But I know my life would be very different if I’d stayed. Perhaps I never would have made it out of those basement bars Aidan’s stuck in?
Staying with Greater Manchester, it seems to me that it has always ‘punched above its weight’ in terms of awful criminal deeds. Given the history of villainy which includes Brady and Hindley, Trevor Hardy, Harold Shipman and Dale Cregan, do you think that is a fair assessment?
Punching above its weight is a pretty good line for Manchester in general. Like all truly great cities, it offers possibilities. Annihilation and salvation. The atmosphere of Manchester is both breathtakingly beautiful and bluntly cruel. Why wouldn’t that broadcast out to the population?
Sirens is almost blacker than Noir. Which authors from the darker end of the crime fiction street have influenced you?
James Ellroy is very important to me. As are the obvious hard noir guys like David Peace etc – and the weirder ones like James Sallis. The biggest influence on me as a writer, though, is Ross MacDonald. Archer is a man trying to understand people, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. As the world gets crueler, that’s more important. Certainly as Aidan finds himself surrounded by enemies and, at a certain point in the novel I think it’s fair to say, finds himself totally doomed, his sympathy – rather than his bravery – is what I admire most.
Sirens is a great title. Are we talking blue flashing lights or voluptuous ladies luring sailors to their death?
Thank you. The first time I thought of Sirens as a title for this book (working title was: Women Who Love Men Who Love Drugs) was when listening to There There by Radiohead. Thom Yorke’s wonderful line; ‘There’s always a siren, singing you to shipwrecks’ seemed to sum up Aidan’s plight.
There’s so much to love about the word. Sex, danger, lights, noises, police, women, temptation. Could be a straight description of the almost-mythic women in the novel. A nod towards Aidan’s weakness for them. A nod towards what might happen to him if he succumbs to this weakness. But, yes, also a reference to the police. Their corruption is a major theme of Sirens. A combination of the two meanings, a police siren and a destructive siren, could even give the impression that the real danger in this novel is on the side of the law…
The craze for anything Scandinavian in crime fiction seems to have passed. With your experience of selling crime books to the public, what do you think will be ‘the next Big Thing’?
Ah! No one ever gets this shit right and why would they want to? The joy of books is surprise – a line, a title, a bestseller. I also read as much around the map as possible to avoid trend books. With that said, in general fiction I’ve recently been enjoying a lot of Faction. That is to say, novels which combine fact with fiction – perhaps even ones where the authors themselves can be characters. Perhaps not a future trend, but an idea of some crime books that’d turn my head.
What next for Aidan Waits?
Aidan Waits will return in 2018 in The Smiling Man. Based on a real-life unsolved murder. One of the most maddening and confounding I’ve ever encountered, mesmerising, kaleidoscopic evil, with surprisingly little written about it. I want each of the Waits novels to be a different kind of crime novel. The first is the undercover book. This is Aidan and his monstrous partner Sutty investigating a real case and driving each other mad.
The Waterstones Exclusive of Sirens contains a Waits short story which takes place after the events of Sirens, and lightly sets up the events of book two…