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The Smiling Man

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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