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.

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