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Joseph Knox

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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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best debut novel

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Writing as an aged hack, and a commentator on other people’s creativity (having little of my own), I can hardly imagine what a mixture of triumph, joy – and trepidation – must run through the minds of writers when they finally have a book that makes it into print. I have read some very good self-published books this year, but to have actually convinced a hard-nose publisher that your novel is worth printing – that must be an amazing feeling. Likewise, it must be what sports commentators call “squeaky bum time” waiting to see if members of the public actually stump up and buy your book.

The notable debuts in crime fiction this year have been many and varied. I was much taken by the main character in RG Oram’s Much Needed Rain, whose perceptions and awareness of his fellow mortals are so acute that he is, effectively, a human polygraph. Lloyd Otis served up a dystopian London in 1977 with his Deadlands – splendidly both crime and grimy. In another urban landscape similarly blighted, Augustus Rose, in The Readymade Thief, described a delinquent girl turned loose in a Chicago that was a potent mixture of gritty realism and fantasy.

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Without doubt the most compelling three words uttered in a 2017 debut novel were, “Choose one, bitch”, the strapline for Samantha King’s The Choice, where she created a nightmare world of domestic Noir where a mother is forced to choose between the lives of her two children. TA Cottrell provided another peep between the curtains of an apparently normal house, when What Alice Knew laid bare the scars of memory, guilt and bitterness that can be borne by old relationships. Peter Laws is an intriguing chap. He is a serving Baptist minister, with a fascination for horror and the supernatural. In Purged, he introduced us to Matt Hunter, a former minister himself who, in between lecturing on comparative religions, investigates dark deeds – in this case a series of murders connected to a charismatic church and its congregation. A novel which received huge praise around the world for its power and elegiac qualities was The Dry, by Australian Jane Harper. This was a compelling account of how a Federal policeman returns to his hometown, a five hour dusty drive from Melbourne, to investigate the slaughter go a local family.

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KnoxEvery book I’ve mentioned won admirers from different sections of the reading public but, for me, the die was cast when a rather shy young man read the opening paragraphs of his soon-to-be-published novel at a book promotion evening in a smart Fitzrovia Hotel. Joseph Knox (left) may still have work to do to become a Richard Burton in the making, but Sirens is comfortably my debut novel of 2017. On a very superficial level it’s a police procedural, set in Manchester, where we share the trials and tribulations of a young copper, Aidan Waits. Waits is a complex character, attended by his own demons and obsessed with bringing down a local drug baron. That’s where any resemblance to a bog-standard cops and robbers tale ends. Knox writes with the kind of savage poetry which reminded me very much of the great Derek Raymond and the bleak world and urban eloquence of his Factory novels. I am delighted that a follow-up novel is on its way, but what a challenge, to equal such a stunning debut!

“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.”

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Click the links to see who won

Best historical crime novel

Best police procedural novel

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

TRANSWORLD 2017

At a gathering in The Charlotte Street Hotel on Wednesday evening, and against a backdrop of their impressive collection of recent best-sellers, Transworld showed that they are determined to hit the ground running in 2017. We were were introduced to five writers who will be making their debuts. Each read from their novel, and then took part in a question and answer session.

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First up was Joseph Knox, with his Manchester based police thriller, Sirens. Unsurprisingly, in the short extract we heard, it was raining! Joseph spoke about his love of Noir – which he defined as “Beautiful Doom”, and told us about how he had been hooked into the world of Noir by a memorable sequence of movies starring Humphrey Bogart. His advice to aspiring writers was simple – make time for your writing, but don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t go well. Sirens will be out on 12th January 2017.

02-katie-khanKatie Khan took the stand with something very, very different. Hold Back The Stars, which will be published on 26th January is a love story, but with a difference. It is part sci fi, part fantasy and part romance, and is the story of a young couple who are forced to prove their love in order to stay together. Katie reminded us that it was only a few years ago that making friends – and finding lovers – on social media would have been unthinkable, but her book takes us forward to a time when such liaisons will be commonplace.

03-rachel-rysAustralia 1939, and The Lucky Country is the setting for A Dangerous Crossing, the upcoming mystery thriller from Rachel Rhys. In a sense, this is a different kind of debut, as Rachel Rhys is the pen-name of an already- successful psychological suspense author. A Dangerous Crossing is her debut under this name and is inspired by a real life account of a voyage to Australia, during which two passengers die in mysterious circumstances, and war has been declared in Europe. Rachel reminded us that in a pre-digital age, a long ocean crossing was the perfect place for people to hide, and in her book everyone has a secret, or is running away from something. The novel will be published on 6th April.

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Mahsuda Snaith provided us with a complete contrast of tone and subject matter. The Things We Thought We Knew is a minutely observed tale of a girl made prisoner by her surroundings – a mundane housing estate – and her own illness. Mahsuda said that the plot itself was not autobiographical, but the setting was a faithfully painted portrait of the world she herself grew up in. She is a very accomplished short story writer, and when questioned about the problems of going from the short form to the full length novel, she admitted that she has been writing this book since she was sixteen, and it has been revisited many times. The Things We Thought We Knew  is out on 15th June.

05-t-a-coterellBristol resident T A Cotterell was the final reader, with an extract from What Alice Knew. Cotterell read History of Art at Cambridge University and, significantly, the central character in his book is a portrait painter. He explained that the core theme of the book is family secrets, and told us of a real life instance when his mother name dropped someone of whom he had never heard, and when he asked who he was, he received the disconcerting reply, “Oh, he was my handler in MI6!”. The thought of his mother being a very successful intelligence operator in communist Hungary led him to explore the theme of how much we owe our children in terms of the truth. The novel asks many questions. How far would you go to protest someone you love? Would you lie to the police knowing your loved one is guilty as charged, or would you watch their life fall apart because of a terrible accident? What Alice Knew is out on 20th April.

Fully Booked will be reviewing each of these titles nearer to their date of publication, but if you wish to pre-order any of them, the details are already up Amazon pages.

 

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