Ripping open the heart of Manchester to expose its dirty veins, Joseph Knox’s debut thriller Sirens paints a searing and unflinching portrait of the city – its ‘unblinking lights’ masking sordid streets where drug-takers and suppliers, addicts, violence and a pervasive gang culture are juxtaposed with the corruption, greed, showmanship and narcissism of its politicians, its ruling classes, its wealthy elite. Everyone’s on the take or the make, and no one can be trusted.
Enter disgraced and damaged cop, Aidan Waits, whose own addictions have not only led to his downfall, but cloud his judgement and enshroud his troubled past. On suspension, he can face a prison term or slip over to the dark side of policing, where backhanders and favours mock the concept of law on the streets. He agrees to play mole, ingratiating himself with one of the city’s most prominent drug-dealers, while seeking answers to the disappearance of a leading politician’s 17-year-old daughter. Added to this, there’s a 10-year-old cold case – a missing girl, Joanna Greenlaw – whose presumed death is linked to drug baron, Zain Carver, the target of Waits’ underground investigations.
Shovelling speed and drinking himself into a haze of half-remembered indiscretions, Waits slips under cover, recklessness and anger driving his investigations. He bears the brunt of a series of violent attacks, allows his thirst for affection and affirmation to compromise his decision-making, and takes risks that only an addled mind could contemplate. And yet, he gets it right. His instincts are visceral; his acceptance of violence and his own shortcomings provide an insight into the motivations of the perpetrators he is seeking.
Sirens is an intelligent, multi-layered and explosive thriller, with a cast of characters that will undoubtedly spawn an unforgettable series. The sirens of the title are the girls who populate the dark corridors of the Manchester drug scene – beautiful money collectors and drug carriers, who entrance their victims, and draw them into an ephemeral web. They are ethereal, barely described – ‘a cruel kind of beautiful’ – as they lure, delight and then vanish.
The action is pulsating, reaching fever pitch as Waits stumbles through his remit, swinging across the city and up and down its gleaming penthouse towers and into the filthy basements and frozen streets. There are well-timed lulls in the action, offering the reader the opportunity to digest the frenetic action, the multitudinous clues uncovered and then revealed. Manchester becomes a stark and unforgiving character in its own right (and it’s a tale of two cities – the one we see, and the one that exists just beneath the slightly clouded veneer), closely followed by the weather – the cold, dark fog of winter creating just the right sort of chill, and enriching the darkness that pervades this book.
Harking back to the greatest purveyors of American Noir, from Raymond Chandler through to Ross MacDonald, this is hard-boiled crime at its very best, with stark descriptions, a pulsating plot, non-stop action, a terse narrative and unfettered violence. And yet, yet, there is beauty here – a grim but affectionate tribute to the lost, to victims, to a broken city, to the shortcomings of modern society, and the confused emotions, greed, desperation and desires that drive it. There is a bashed-up attempt at love. There is a whisper of redemption.
Rich descriptions present vivid images: ‘Now, most of these derelict building sites are cannibalized for scrap. The others are left to rot, collecting rainwater in exposed foundations. Rusting like open sores in the ground. There were times during its three-year construction when it seemed that even Beetham Tower wouldn’t be finished. It went up, though, in spite of everything, extended like a middle finger to the entire city’ or ‘They called him the Bug because he would hover around a group of kids, salivating as they shot up. Then, once they were high, he’d lower himself down and kiss, gently, along their arms until he got the vein they’d shot into. Then he’d suckle at the wound, letting out low, satisfied moans. His primary physical threat was being literally infectious.’
Sirens is a stunning and original debut. It’s smart, pacey, gritty and unforgiving; it’s a page-turner and it almost explodes with intrigue and excitement; but it’s also more than that. Joseph Knox has created something of a masterpiece here – a throwback to the best of noir fiction, but also an electrifying, thought-provoking and moving novel that will poke its head above the masses and be remembered. Astonishingly brilliant. For a debut? Unbelievable.