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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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