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The Sleepwalker

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best police procedural

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While police procedurals, at least in recent years, don’t tend to attract as much publicity as, say, domestic noir (or books with ’Girl’ in the title) they are the solid and dependable backbone of crime fiction. A true cynic might say that the police procedural scene is a roomfull of Detective Inspectors moaning about their desk-bound box-ticking superior officers, but in the hands of writers who are prepared to take a few risks and move away from the norm, a good police novel is hard to beat.

tkim-coverThere are some very special Irish crime writers these days. Some mine the uniquely bitter and bleak seam of Belfast, with its raw and recent memories, while further south the city of Dublin, where “the girls are so pretty”, has its fair share of malcontents and evil doers. Olivia Kiernan and her Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan were new to me, but The Killer In Me was a beguiling read. I called it “dark, complex, but full of compassion.” and the story of Sheehan’s search for a killer, while trying to decide if a newly released killer is a wrongly convicted media cause célèbre or a murderous con artist, is beautifully told.

tbwfStaying in Ireland, it has to be said that Jo Spain is ridiculously talented. She has created a bankable stock character in the affable Dublin copper Tom Reynolds, but this has not stopped her from writing such brilliant stand-alones as The Confession. In reviewing her books I have used adjectives like ‘bravura’, ‘intense’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘mesmerising’, so will gather that I am a fan. It was good to welcome back Tom Reynolds this year in The Boy Who Fell. On one level this is a firecracker of a whodunnit, and Spain’s ability to misdirect the reader and lead us – Pied Piper-like – in the wrong direction, is proudly displayed. On a more reflective level her observations on moneyed Dublin society are sharp and salutary, as Reynolds tries to discover why a teenager died while partying with his privileged and privately educated friends.

CATGVulnerability as a character trait is perhaps more common in British fictional coppers that their American counterparts, and few fit that bill quite like James Oswald’s Edinburgh detective Tony McLean. Cold As The Grave is his ninth outing, and his quest for the truth behind a series of corpses found in strange locations in the old city brings the frayed edges of his character into focus. He has always had an awareness of the fact that there are “more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Oswald never goes full-on supernatural, but McLean is ever more aware that the solution to the Edinburgh deaths may lie beyond the dry pages of the Police Scotland training manual.

SleepwalkerIn The Sleepwalker, Joseph Knox reintroduced us to his troubled Manchester Detective Constable, Aidan Waits, who we first met in Sirens (2017) and The Smiling Man (2018). To say that Waits’s Manchester is dystopian is rather like saying that there can be a certain frisson between supporters of City and United. In The Sleepwalker it rarely seems to be daylight as the pallid and pinched faces of drug abusers and petty crimInals are caught in the flickering neon lights of the late night clubs and drinking dens. Waits and his loathsome immediate superior Sergeant Sutcliffe have been tasked with waiting at the bedside of a dying serial killer, in the hope that his final breath will reveal the burial place of one of his victims. Inevitably, everything goes bloodily wrong, and when the dust settles, and the final autopsy is done, Knox asks us – perhaps, maybe, possibly – to bid Waits a fond farewell.

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Click this link for a full review of Their Little Secret.

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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