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Aidan Waits

CRIME ACROSS ENGLAND. . . 5: Manchester and Shrewsbury

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I’m heading south to the urban sprawl of Manchester, to meet a very different kind of copper, one who lives at the dark end of the street. Aidan Waits was memorably brought to life (and death, I think) by Joseph Knox.

Aidan Waits inhabits a place where it never seems to be fully daylight, a world where he rubs shoulders with drug dealers and their customers, a city where violence is a common currency, and streets where broken hearts and disappointment walk hand in hand. Noir? Certainly, and probably the best British example of the genre in recent years. It’s not just Waits who is a creature of the darkness. His immediate boss, the ironically named DS Peter Sutcliffe, is a pretty awful specimen of both man and copper. They both glow with a certain righteousness only when they stand next to the repulsive Zane Carver, Waits’s sworn enemy and nemesis. If you click the image below, you will be able to read reviews of the three Aidan Waits novels, Sirens, The Smiling Man and The Sleepwalker.

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Next, I am going to a different place and time altogether. Back through the centuries, and to a place that was considerably less dystopian than Joseph Knox’s Hieronymus Bosch-like Manchester. Shrewsbury in the early 12th century was, like most other towns, no stranger to dark deeds and the general venality of its inhabitants, but in the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) there is virtue to be found as well as kindness and redemption. There were 21 novels featuring the crime-solving Benedictine monk, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) and concluding with Brother Cadfael’s Penance (1994). It wouldn’t be fair to call the series ‘cosy’, but readers certainly became comfortable with the vividly authentic period settings, the intriguing crimes, and Cadfael’s own blend of worldliness – as befitted a man who was a former soldier – and Christian benevolence. So, what was Cadfael’s story?

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For many people, the Cadfael stories will have been defined by the excellent TV versions, starring Derek Jacobi. That’s absolutely fine, and his portrayal must be added to the surprisingly short list of definitive adaptations that matched and enhanced the printed word. In my view, only John Thaw’s Morse, David Jason’s Jack Frost, Roy Marsden’s Adam Dalgliesh and David Suchet’s Poirot should be included, although there is – due to the number of options – a separate debate about Sherlock Holmes. For the record, it is Jeremy Brett for me, but that’s a discussion for another day. Go back to the printed word, though, for the most subtle and  multi- layered portrait of  Brother Cadfael – one of crime fiction’s immortals.

THE SLEEPWALKER . . . Between the covers

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In a fictional world overflowing with disfunctional detectives who happen to be rather good at their jobs, Joseph Knox has raised, or perhaps lowered, the bar considerably with his DC Aidan Waits. We first met Waits in Sirens (2017) and then in The Smiling Man (2018). Now, in The Sleepwalker, Knox takes us on another guided tour of the dystopian underbelly of contemporary Manchester.

TSTogether with his grotesque partner and immediate boss, DI Peter Sutcliffe, Waits always gets the shitty end of the stick. ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe is, you might say, a good old fashioned copper. Waits goes to meet him in a dingy rock-and-roll boozer:

“Sutty was standing in the corner, explaining something to one of the other customers. To make sure the man was really listening, he’d lifted him off the ground by his ears and begun banging his head into the wall to the beat of the drum.

He let the smile slide, dramatically, off his face when he saw me.

‘Oh’, he said, over the music. ‘It’s the great depression. Shouldn’t you be queuing up for a loaf of bread instead of buying beer?’ “

Waits and Sutcliffe have been assigned to a Death Watch. In hospital, a notorious serial killer nicknamed The Sleepwalker because of the bizarre circumstances of his arrest, is dying of cancer. Years ago, he was convicted of slaughtering a family – wife and children – and the older daughter’s body has never been found. In the faint hope that Martin Wick’s dying breath will reveal the final resting place of twelve year-old Lizzie Moore – a sombre echo of the misplaced faith that believed Ian Brady would finally say where he had buried Keith Bennett – Waits and Sutcliffe sit by the dying man’s bedside, their ears close to whatever utterance escapes his shriveled lips.

Why is Aidan Waits such a tortured character? Well, how long have you got? His childhood was loveless and chaotic, and spent largely in institutions where he rubbed shoulders with trainee failures, malcontents and killers. Echoing Nietzsche’s chilling remarks about the moral abyss, Waits has, more recently, gazed too long into a chasm inhabited by a repellent Manchester crime lord called Zane Carver. Carver has fed Waits’s drug habit, and the two have fought over women. Carver has a particular talent with women:

“Zain Carver was a magician when it came to ruining women’s lives.

He surrounded himself with these beautiful assistants and then delighted in sawing them up, making them disappear. Sometimes a new girl on his arm might end up on the game, or in hospital, or back with her parents feeling five years older, a permanent faraway look in her eyes.”

As distinctive as Knox is as a stylist, and as much as he is a master of the inky black metaphor, he has a tale to tell and a plot to spin. The sepulchral calm of Martin Wick’s closely guarded hospital room is shattered by a savage attack which Waits survives, but puts him at the head of the queue as the police and the gutter press search for scapegoats. With Carver having decided to exact revenge on Waits by donning his black cap and pronounced the death sentence, Waits is on the run both from the gangster and, no less implacably, his politically motivated senior officers, but he keeps them at bay. He discovers faint-but-fatal fault lines in the original case against Martin Wicks, and finds that both Kevin Blake, the detective who brought Wicks to justice, and Frank Moore, the father of the murdered children, still have songs to sing.

KnoxJoseph Knox writes like an angel. Possibly an Angel of Death, but he grasps the spluttering torch of English Noir once carried by such writers as Derek Raymond, and runs with such vigour that the flame burns brightly once again. He is not without humour, and there are many – if unrepeatable – gags exchanged between the cynical cops and their low-life prey. The politically correct nature of modern policing doesn’t escape his attention, either:

“The conference space and interview rooms had a bland, mass-produced, modern aesthetic. If Hitler’s bunker had been designed by Travelodge, it couldn’t have communicated quiet despair any more effectively.”

 No-one who has had the misfortune to require A & E treatment on any given weekend evening – in Manchester, Middlesborough, Maidenhead or Milton Keynes – will be unfamiliar with this baleful description, as Waits searches for a suspect:

“I looked about me. Bloodshed, fist-fights and stab wounds. Confused, stunned people, drunk, on drugs, with life-altering injuries. Stick-thin single mothers on food bank diets, with morbidly obese babies.”

Knox has his grim fun with a Manchester police force that is barely honest, city down-and-outs who have lost most of the trappings of humanity, and an infestation of tattooed, Spice-addicted thugs straight from Central Casting – with Hieronymus Bosch as the agency’s head of HR. He also leaves us with a delightfully enigmatic final few pages. The Sleepwalker is published by Doubleday and will be on the shelves from 11th July

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THE SMILING MAN . . . Between the covers

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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.

TSMThis 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.

KnoxThis 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.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . Three keepers!

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MOST BOOK REVIEWERS do not have the space to keep all the books they read and review. I’m no exception, despite living in a five bedroom property bought to house a missus and four sons. The four sons have now grown up and gone, but Mrs P is, happily, still in residence. Friends, giveaways and charity shops are the usual beneficiaries of the unwanted books, but there are some writers whose novels I will only be parted from after a brutal battle where I have, like John Cleese’s Black Knight, been dismembered. These books are usually dotted about throughout the year, and some only exist as a digital file on my Kindle, but to get three ‘keepers’ in one delivery is something special. Two of these writers could be called Elder Statesmen of the crime fiction world, but the third has established himself, in my eyes at least, after just one superb novel.

THE SMILING MAN by JOSEPH KNOX

KnoxI met Joseph Knox (left) at a publisher’s showcase event in London, where he presented his debut novel, Sirens. I was hooked after hearing him read the opening paragraphs, and my initial impression was confirmed when I read the novel, featuring a conflicted young Manchester police officer, Aidan Waits. Knox talked about his work and influences in this interview, but now Aidan Waits makes a very welcome return. Once again, the city of Manchester looms as a malign and dystopian presence in The Smiling Man. In the crumbling and echoing emptiness of a former hotel, Waits finds a corpse whose killers have been so determined to render him anonymous that his teeth and fingertips have been replaced. In death, his face has assumed the rictus of a fatal smile. You can find out if – and how –  Waits solves this crime on 8th March. The Smiling Man is published by Doubleday.

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS by PHILIP KERR

Philip KerrJust as George MacDonald Fraser had his magnificent bounder Harry Flashman working his way through all the major political and military events of the the second half of the 19th century, so Philip Kerr (right) has positioned his wearily honest – but cynical –  German cop Bernie Gunther in the 20th. We know Gunther fought in The Great War, but his service there is only, thus far, alluded to. We have seen him interact with most of the significant players in the decades spanning the rise of the Nazis through to their defeat and escape into post-war boltholes such as Argentina and Cuba. In the 13th book of this brilliant series, Gunther, joints creaking with advancing old age, is now working for an insurance company who want him to investigate a possible scam involving a sunken ship. His work takes him to Athens, where he discovers an unpleasantly familiar link to evil deeds committed under the baleful gaze of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. Some of Bernie Gunther’s earlier exploits are covered here, while you can get hold of his latest case on 3rd April, courtesy of Quercus.

THE GREAT DARKNESS by JIM KELLY

Crime fiction readers are addicted to character series, and who can blame writers for feeding the fire. It is a matter of record that some very successful novelists have come to hate their creations, and have killed them off and started anew. Not all are successful – witness a certain Edinburgh physician – but Jim Kelly (below) has done the deed once, and now he is brave enough to do it again. His Peter Shaw books have matched his Philip Dryden novels for ingenuity, sense of place and history, and beautiful writing, but now he begins a third series, stepping back in time to the early days of World War Two. He has kept faith with his East Anglian setting, but we have moved sixteen miles down the road from Dryden’s cathedral city of Ely, to Cambridge where, in The Great DarknessDetective Inspector Eden Brooke, struggling with the titular ban on night-time lights, discovers a gruesome killing o the banks of the gently flowing River Cam. The Great Darkness is published by Allison & Busby, and is out on 15th February. You can read more about Jim Kelly and his books here.

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SIRENS . . . Between the covers

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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.

sirensSo, 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

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