Sirens “A MANCHESTER-SET NOIR THAT’S HARD-HITTING AND IMMENSELY READABLE”
While many contemporary crime authors aspire to write noir, few manage to capture its bleak essence and dark poetry. With his debut novel, Joseph Knox has achieved something remarkable – a totally modern, Manchester-set noir that’s atmospheric, hard-hitting and immensely readable. Sirens signals the arrival of a major new talent.
The novel’s opening page finds disgraced detective Aidan Waits having received a blow to the head and his life about to unravel. It may be a familiar scenario – the compromised cop taking a walk on the wild side – but Sirens is unusual for a British novel, as it possesses literary heft comparable to the US fiction that shines a light on the drug trade. In Knox’s case, it’s an illegal operation called the Franchise, which employs young women – the titular Sirens – who discretely collect drug revenue while apparently socialising in a string of city bars controlled by the dealers.
DC Waits is plunged into this underworld following a serious error of judgement, one which enables his boss to use him to flush out the dirty cops on the payroll of Manchester’s drug kingpin. The young detective has been publicly disgraced and appears to be damaged goods. So he has the perfect cover story with which to inveigle himself into the gang run by Zain Carver (a man of “charm and cold, clean malice”), who’s gentrified the drug trade but is still definitely not to be crossed.
This perilous investigation is complicated by the 17-year-old daughter of a vodka heiress, who’s run away from home and become part of Carver’s party crowd at his house in a suburb of South Manchester. The girl’s father, a slippery government minister, then tasks Waits with keeping an eye on her. Of course, things don’t go to plan, as Waits’ own demons surface after he’s obliged to take drugs to make his undercover role believable, and he’s also accused of going “method actor” by his boss.
Waits also faces the threat of a rival gang, the Burnsiders, though it may be the political and police establishment who he has to really worry about.
Knox convincingly portrays the psychological impact and moral quandaries of working undercover, and also delineates the murky drug culture. We learn of a product called ‘eight’ (heroin, which begins with the eighth letter of the alphabet), ‘troubleshooting’ (the risky testing of a batch of the drug) and the UV lights in the Franchise’s bars that make it easier for addicts to find a vein.
Waits’ first fictional outing is a shadowy, disturbing narrative, and once you start reading it’s hard to resist the call. Sirens is the best British crime debut of the last five years.