Detective Constable Aidan Waits of Greater Manchester Police is a veritable ghost of a copper. Not that he is actually dead, you understand, more that because of previous misdeeds, he has been cast into eternal darkness, doomed forever to work the night shift in the dubious company of the unfortunately-named Detective Inspector Peter Sutcliffe. Rather like De Vliegende Hollander, they are fated to roam the backstreets and neon drags of Manchester forever, never finding harbour.
Except when they are called to one of the city’s immense and ornate Victorian hotels, apparently in mothballs pending a change of ownership, but open enough for the security guard to be found senseless, knocked on the head with a fire extinguisher, and in one of the ‘empty’ rooms, a man to be sitting in a chair, stone dead, with his face composed into a dreadful grimace that looks like a smile, but has nothing to do with happiness.
This is all too much like hard work for Sutcliffe, but despite warnings from his saturnine superior, Superintendent Parr, Waits digs deeper. He uncovers a labyrinthine series of connections between an absent solicitor doing his rich-white-man things among the bar girls of Thailand, an apparently gay businessman and his estranged wife, the corpse (now renamed The Smiling Man), and another hotel room, its floor saturated with pint after pint of human blood.
The plot is gloriously, madly complex, but I am reminded of masterpieces by Raymond Chandler such as The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye where you are never completely certain about what is happening, but you are swept along by the sheer brilliance of the writing. We are set an initial puzzle by Joseph Knox, which appears to be separate from the main narrative. We read of an almost Dickensian criminal gang, where a brutal man uses a young lad to gain entrance to prosperous houses and, when the boy’s work is done, the man exacts terrible violence on the residents. It may take you a while to work out the significance of these episodes but when you do, it is less the sound of a penny dropping than the dreadful resonance of the executioner’s axe striking the block.
This is little short of a modern masterpiece. You might imagine Joseph Knox (right) to be a weathered, life-weary cynical misanthrope, hunched in a corner of the pub, savouring a roll-up, rather like a latter day Derek Raymond, but anyone who has had the privilege of meeting Joseph will know that this is far from the case. He is well versed in the art of Noir, though, as he revealed when he spoke to us around the time that his first novel, Sirens, was published.
“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.”
Like all fine novels, The Smiling Man tugs our sensibilities this way and that. Despite his personal traumas, Aidan Waits is a man with almost unlimited compassion. Once again, the comparison that leaps out from the page to me is between Aidan Waits and Derek Raymond’s nameless Detective Sergeant. Their fellowship with the dead is absolute and boundless; their desire for resolution and retribution burns like a flame. Of course, Manchester and its heady mixture of vice and vivacity features as a character in itself. Of his relationship with the city, Knox said:
“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?”
The Smiling Man is published by Doubleday,
and will be available on 8 March.