Joseph Knox: creating a new detective
I was recently locked out of a lapsed email account.
In the ancient days of dial-up connections, when the internet was still in black and white, there was a website called Hotmail where you kept everything. Vast swathes of my twenties are a total mystery to me – the files in my brain either corrupted or deleted out of shame – and, while this helps one sleep at night, it’s a bastard when trying to remember old passwords.
So I took a chance on the security question: ‘What is your dream job?’ I guessed the answer would be ‘writer’ and regained access.
Given that the account was set up over ten years ago, it was sobering to realise I’d achieved something that was just an impossible dream back then. In some ways I was a writer from day one, poverty and madness came naturally to me, and I enjoyed hours scratching out words that no one else would ever see. I spent years half-writing, half-finishing, half-polishing short stories. Sketching characters, pulling them apart and putting them back together again. My needs were minimal, my girlfriends few.
It was only upon accessing this old email account that I found some of these shorts. Gritting my teeth, reading through my fingers, I dutifully trawled through them until I discovered something different, something good. It was a story about a young boy and his little sister, living through a traumatic event. The reason it stopped me dead was that I had not only forgotten writing it, but I had gone on to write about this boy again – now as a young man – in my debut novel, Sirens.
Sirens is set across a night time, nightmare, vision of Manchester. A neon-lit world of mystery and seduction – filled with casual cruelty and life-altering selflessness. Aidan Waits, a troubled young detective, is caught stealing drugs from evidence and blackmailed into what is little more than a suicide mission. To find the missing daughter of a prominent MP.
When we meet Aidan at the opening of Sirens, he’s face-down on the ground, with no memory of how he got there. He’s got a black eye, a black cloud hanging over him, and seemingly no friends in the world. He’s disconnected, lost, heartbroken and weird. As he investigates Isabelle’s disappearance, he must also confront the past that draws him to her.
Recalling his childhood in care, he muses: ‘The only things that felt permanent were our names, which fit uncomfortably as the damp-smelling, hand-me-down clothes we wore, and felt less like identities than scars for life. Vicious parting shots from people who didn’t want us.’
In the end, Sirens is as much an investigation into Aidan Waits as it is the central mystery. His past, which he has always regarded with shame and suspicion, is what allows him to make the vital final connection – and bring a manipulative killer to some kind of justice.
Creating a detective? When I re-accessed my lapsed email account I discovered I’d been working on Aidan for longer than even I realised. My entire writing life, all of my failures, elations and rages went into him.
Read the first chapter of Sirens by Joseph Knox here.