Book review: The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox

When your first novel was marked down as one of the year's best urban noir crime debuts, it was always going to be a hard act to follow.

The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox
The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox

Many authors would be left trembling at the knees at the weight of expectation but, judging from the spectacular follow-up to his taut, tense and twisted 2017 thriller Sirens, Joseph Knox was more than up to the task.

Knox – pseudonym of Joseph Knobbs, Waterstones Crime Buyer, which makes him possibly the best-connected and best-read crime author – spent many of his formative years in and around Manchester and the city’s dark underbelly has become the fertile and fearsome backdrop to a highly original, violent and visceral police series that has all the makings of a classic.

Starring role is Detective Constable Aidan Waits, a disgraced and dangerously reckless copper working a permanent night shift with his disaffected, cynical sidekick Detective Inspector Peter Sutcliffe, a notorious name that makes him ‘one of life’s great nature-nurture debates.’

But in best supporting role is the city of Manchester which, in Knox’s capable hands, is transformed into an urban hell on earth, a place of corruption, cruelty, alienation, sexual degradation and drug dealing… a society, Sutcliffe reckons, well into its ‘death throes.’

Manchester is in the middle of an ‘annihilating’ heatwave full of ‘endless, fever dream days’ and a ‘slow-drip of people losing their minds.’

Detective Constable Aidan Waits, demoted, disgraced and cut loose by his bosses, is on his 120th night shift in a row, six months into what feels like a life sentence. His nocturnal partner is Detective Inspector Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe who, at first glance, could be either a cop or a criminal… and Aidan still isn’t sure. The two detectives are chalk and cheese and are united only by their desire to make things as difficult as possible for each other.

Their night shifts are an endless cycle of meaningless emergency calls, haunted people and lonely dead ends until they are summoned to a break-in at The Palace, a vast, redbrick, disused hotel in the centre of the red-hot, simmering city.

Down the labyrinthine corridors and sitting in a chair in the moody light of a desk lamp, Aidan finds the body of a man, his mouth locked into a ‘wide, wincing’ rictus grin. All the tags have been removed from his clothes, his teeth have been filed down and replaced, and even his fingertips are not his own. Only a patch, sewn into the inside of his trousers, gives any indication as to who he was, and his desperate last act.

But as Aidan puts together the pieces of this stranger’s story, someone is watching him and sifting through the shards of the detective’s life too. As a series of mysterious fires, anonymous phone calls and outright threats escalate, he realises that a ghost from his past haunts his every move and to discover the smiling man’s identity, he must finally confront his own demons.

The Smiling Man impresses from the outset as Knox weaves a shadowy world of students ‘living in the moment, for better or worse’ and imperfect, unhappy people living in ‘beat-up’ boarding houses blackened by smog, in streets blighted by the ‘sad melodrama’ of everyday existence.

This hallucinatory night-time city of restless souls and electrically-charged explosions of light is the mesmerising landscape for a tale painted in shades of black and grey, brimming with menace and malice, and imbued with a sense of evil so real that one can feel it pulsing through the pages.

Aidan Waits is the light in the darkness; flawed but inspired by his own troubled past, he fights – often in the most unorthodox manner – for the dispossessed, the vulnerable and for those elusive things called truth and decency in a dirty, degraded world.

Written with Knox’s powerful descriptive prose and underpinned with black humour, a plot full of perfectly gathered threads, and a bone-chilling, gut-wrenching intensity, this remarkable thriller is proof of an author with far more than one ‘big’ book to his name.

And although you don’t need to have read Sirens to enjoy the journey of The Smiling Man, why miss the first act of a crime masterpiece?

(Doubleday, hardback, £12.99)