Sirens – this week’s review in the Library Corner

I was standing in Waterstones, asking for dark crime stories, when the assistant handed me Sirens – debut novel by Joseph Knox. Sumptuously produced in hardback, it comes garlanded with testimonials. Clearly, Knox either has something – or knows a lot of people.Sirens by Joseph Knox debut noir crime reviewed by Charles Harris

It was then that I noticed that one of the testimonials had been written by my son, Oliver Harris. I had no choice then, did I? (He owes me £12.99!)

So, notwithstanding cover blurbs from nine top crime writers, also including Lee Child and Val McDermid, how seductive are Knox’s sirens?

Deeper and deeper

Well, I asked for a dark tale, and I certainly got one.

Caught with his hands in the drugs locker, DC Aidan Watts is disgraced and only just clinging on to his job. So a shady superior thinks him the ideal man to get down and dirty with the dangerous yet mysterious drugs baron Zain Carver.

At the heart of the case is a missing teenager, the runaway daughter of a powerful politician. But it’s not long before Watts makes connections with a dead woman from the past. And more deaths are soon on the cards.

The pace is not fast, but intense, building tension as Watts finds himself swimming in deeper and deeper waters.

Knox draws the dark cityscape well. The city not specified as such, but clearly Manchester, from the names of locations in the book. The sense of grime palpable enough to make you want to wash after each session reading.

The characters, too, are appropriately noir. From the seductive, yet vulnerable women to the amoral, vicious gangsters and drug-dealers who seem to control most aspects of their lives.

The call of the noir sirens

And, at the centre, Watts – beyond scraping the bottom of his career barrel. Lost, confused, generally despised by criminals and fellow police alike.

Sirens in this novel, carries a strong double-meaning. On the one hand, the sirens of the police cars that may be coming to get him at any time. On the other, the siren call of Mancunian night-life, with its sex, drugs and degradation.

Such books can be gripping. Yet, somehow, I wasn’t gripped as much as I should have been.

I feel that the problem is probably Watts himself. I love a good noir, but a good noir needs a good noir anti-hero and Watts isn’t quite strong enough to compensate for the squalor.

He isn’t knocked-about yet tough, in the manner of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Nor is he full-on bad, like Brett Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

Sense of humour failure

The alternative would have been a good helping of dark humour, as Mick Herron gives his washed-up, dysfunctional spies in Spook Street – which I reviewed earlier this year.

Or indeed Oliver Harris gives to DC Nick Belsey, in his own series of drily dark, often tongue-in-cheek, crime novels.

A touch of that satirical spice would have made all the difference and given the book a welcome variety of tone.

A good debut, then. Not, I have to say, quite worth all those nine testimonials. But if you are into grimy noir, you’ll certainly have a good time.

Links

Sirens

Join the washed-up spooks in Spook Street – review