Reviewed by Annabel
Literary noir, in its general sense of typifying dark, cynical and unpleasant crime novels, (as opposed to the classic hard-boiled style where the protagonist is not a detective), needs constant subdivision these days: Tartan and Emerald noir from Scotland and Ireland. Sirens, falls into an even more specific species – ‘Manc-noir’, set in one of England’s Northern Powerhouse cities, Manchester.
A street you see every day can look unfamiliar, lying face down on the ground, and it took me a minute to work out where I was. The pavement was frozen. Low-hanging fog blurred the air, and nothing could pass through it without being altered somehow. It threw the whole city of focus, taking the shine out of Friday night. […]
I felt the back of my head where someone had just hit it, hard. My wallet was still in my pocket, so I hadn’t been mugged. I’d been warned. There was no one else around but I could feel eyes all over me. (p3)
This is how we meet DC Aidan Waits – ‘disgraced Detective Aidan Waits’, currently suspended for nicking drugs from the evidence store. Waits is in a sorry state, but his boss Superintendent Parrs has a job for him – off the books. Succeed and there may just be a way back onto the force proper.
Waits has two tasks. Firstly, he’s to keep an eye from a distance on Isabelle Rossiter, the seventeen-year-old runaway daughter of the local MP. She’s taken up with local drugs baron Zain Carver, and Rossiter wants zero publicity. Carver is Parrs’ target though, and Waits has been asked to get close to him and find out how his drug-dealing and prostitution empire works. Being a disgraced cop, he can go undercover as himself. Waits can see that these jobs may end up in conflict with each other, but his only path to redemption is to see where both take him.
Those who know Manchester will recognise some of the landmarks used like the skyscraper Beetham Tower where MP Rossiter lives. Additional Manchester references come with the references to Manc-band Joy Division in the headings of the novel’s six sections.
Down at street level though, the action mainly takes place in seedy locations and dark bars; never have the streets of Manchester seemed so dark and dangerous. Most of the novel takes place at night, but even in daylight, there’s a sense of lurking menace in the bars Waits frequents while trying to get an introduction into Carver’s empire.
Once Aidan gets an invite to one of Carver’s house parties through deliberately bumping into Catherine, one of Carver’s collectors of drug money from the frontline dealers, he soon spots Isabelle – but finds it impossible not to talk to her against her father’s wishes. Carver takes to him though, and Waits is in. Things continue to get more and more complicated – a old rival drugs baron is released from jail, a contaminated brick of heroin goes missing, and Aidan falls for Catherine, and it is soon apparent that there are bad cops to root out in the force too. Waits has his own demons to get under control, as well as having to play a game of bluff and counter-bluff putting him in double jeopardy. By then he is obsessed by the situation and feels compelled to see it through, swapping allegiances as the consequences of hidden facts come to light and play out.
The novel is written in the noir tradition of the first-person narrator. Waits may fall into the classic trope of failed and flawed cop, but he has a good heart underneath and we need him to come out the other side of all this corruption. The drug-scene as portrayed here is so sordid and squalid, there is no glorification. Waits knows he must clean up his own act too – luckily its speed for him rather than heroin. The violence is also brutal, sometimes downright nasty, but is used sparingly to good effect. The call of the Sirens, however you want to interpret the word, is strong. From the drugs and drink to Carver’s collectors, all women like the mythical Lorelei, plus the police two-tones – the sirens in this novel take many forms, all of which need to be treated with caution.
The pace is fast-moving and chapters are short, each a single scene. Many are only a page or two long, at most a handful making it a novel that kept me turning the pages. I was amazed that Sirens is a debut novel for Knox gives full rein to his vision of druggy mean streets in a complex plot that feels as if he’s been writing for years, (he is Waterstones’ crime buyer). The Wire meets Line of Duty in Manchester – I couldn’t put it down.
Annabel is one of the Shiny Eds.
Joseph Knox, Sirens (Doubleday, Jan 2017). 978-0857524331, 384 pp., hardback.
BUY Sirens from the Book Depository.