The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox

Reviewed by Annabel

When Knox’s debut Sirens, which I reviewed here, was published in January 2017, it caused ripples. Here was a perfectly formed first novel, a crime thriller with a disgraced detective at its heart set in the nighttime economy of Manchester. I described it as ‘The Wire meets Line of Duty in Manchester’. It remained the best crime thriller I read all year.

Expectations for Knox’s second novel were sky-high, and it’s a delight to be able to say that The Smiling Man not only lives up to Sirens‘ promise, but perhaps exceeds it.

Detective Aidan Waits has resigned himself to working the night shift, alongside his unfortunately named partner, DI Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe. Waits knows that with one false step he could be thrown off the force, after his previous suspension for helping himself to drugs from the evidence store. His full rehabilitation into the squad may never happen, but off the books he was useful to Superintendant Parr who keeps him on a tight leash. Waits, now clean, hopes he still is useful, else there’s no point.

Meanwhile, there’s the latest in a series of dumpster fires to investigate. Aidan and Sutty set off:

We drove an unmarked matt-black BMW that criminals could still spot at a glance. Mainly because of the man usually crammed into the passenger side. …

Sutcliffe was one of life’s great nature-nurture debates. Was he a born shit, or had he just grown into one because of his unfortunate name? His suit jacket, filled to breaking point by his body, looked water-damaged with sweat, and he was giving off so much heat that we sat with the doors wide open.

Sutty’s build and non-PC character remind me of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb, who runs a branch of MI5 for sidelined spooks. Both are grotesque, larger than life men that inject a sense of humour into proceedings, but are, especially in Lamb’s case, clever men.

Then a real case comes up at 1am, a reported break-in at the Palace hotel. The hotel is currently closed while its acrimoniously divorcing owners thrash out who gets what. The alarm had gone off, and the keyholder from the solicitors who are trying to sell the place meets them there. They find the night caretaker knocked unconscious on the third floor, and an open door to one of the suites, room 413.

At the far side of the room was the solid, immovable silhouette of a man. …

As I came alongside him I saw that he was dead. … He looked well groomed for a midnight intruder, cleanly shaven with a sharp haircut. I stopped when I saw his eyes were wide open. They were cobalt-clue and staring into the next life like he was done with this one. It was his teeth that sent me out of the room, though. The muscles in his mouth had contracted viciously, and locked into a wide, wincing grin.

The man is unidentifiable, from his fingertips to his dental work. No tags in his clothes, no clues other than an odd patch sewn inside his trousers – but what does that mean?  Waits and Sutty will have their work cut out to investigate – from the warring owners, the solicitors, the caretakers, the various other visitors to the hotel – there are many leads to follow.

Alongside this main investigation, Waits gets involved with helping a student who spent a night with an alt-right newsman after meeting at the Incognito club. He is threatening to post a sex video, and despite being warned off by Spt Parr, Waits, ever protective of damsels in distress, sorts it out very unofficially. These things, as we know, have a tendency to come back and bite you.

Waits is also under more personal pressure. He can’t escape a feeling of being watched, his sleep is disturbed by anonymous calls. The threats become more overt, and Waits is forced to again confront his own demons, while trying to sort out other peoples’. Waits walks on a constant knife-edge, often contemptuous of authority and having a strong sense of personal justice. Is it his nature or nurture that has made him this way? As Aidan’s own problems increase, we get to know more about Aidan’s own history and identity, as he struggles to identify the smiling man.

Waits may be disgraced and have other flaws, but he is the best kind of maverick detective, you would really want him on your side, and hope that you can rely on his help. As our narrator, we always know how he is feeling and his descriptions for us are clear and pithy. Waits could be a modern day Philip Marlowe.

Knox’s plotting in this second novel is complex and gripping, and allied with the strong sense of place in Manchester, the character-driven mystery made this book unputdownable. Although there are some recurring bit characters from the first book, apart from the police officers, there is no need to read Sirens first – but whichever book you do read, you’ll definitely want to read the other, for both are superb!

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Joseph Knox, The Smiling Man (Doubleday, 2018). 9780857524409, 416pp., hardback.

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