Sirens by Joseph Knox – Modern, Mancunian Noir – Book Review

Sirens is the debut crime thriller novel by Joseph Knox, a crime fiction buyer for Waterstones. It is set in the gritty, yet glamorous, streets of after-dark Manchester and keeps its company with the royalty of the city’s underworld.

Our flawed hero, Detective Aidan Waits, is given a reprieve from his suspension from the Manchester police. He is assigned to a secret mission; infiltrate the world of Zain Carver, the king of Manchester’s drug trade, and one of the most dangerous men in the city. At the same time, he is to keep an eye on young Isabelle Rossiter, a troubled teen running away from her privileged life as the daughter of an MP father and heiress mother, and straight into the arms of Carver and his sirens. Naturally, our detective ends up seduced by Carver’s intoxicants, and his even more intoxicating women…

I was lucky enough to attend a launch party for Sirens, which took place at Waterstones Deansgate where Knox earned his stripes in the literary world. This was an exciting event for me. I’ve lived in Manchester for almost a decade now, and could preach about its greatness forever so I’m really excited that the city is appearing in literature.

Manchester is a character in its own right in the novel, with Knox dropping street names and iconic buildings everywhere. What I enjoy is Knox’s familiarity with the city, and his understanding of how it has developed. We have had a real surge in the past couple of years with tall towers shooting up seemingly overnight, and the city centre expanding outwards. What this means is that the city’s less well off are pushed further and further away, with the gentrification of the outer limits of the city leading to less affordable housing. These narrow cracks between the poor and the extremely rich are well exploited by Knox, and it is here that the action unfolds.

Take one example of Knox’s stunning yet humorous imagery. Anyone who lives here is well aware of the Beetham Tower and many of us can see it from where we live. The tallest building in the city by far, it dwarfs all others. During the credit crash, when other developments ground to a halt, Beetham stubbornly rose up and now, as Knox puts it, is a middle finger forever sticking up at the rest of the city.

At the launch party, Knox explained to us that the inspiration behind the novel is his own walks through the city’s streets at night. Knox used to be a bartender at 5th Avenue night club (one of my favourite haunts as a student!), and used to walk the city streets on his way home in the middle of the night. Here he saw the underworld come to life and the city’s less savoury character come out of the shadows. Another inspiration came from a party he attended at a huge house in one of south Manchester’s wealthiest suburbs, where revellers brought pills and no one knew whose party it was. As a fan of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Knox saw this event as a modern day, British re-telling of Gatsby and so the idea of Zain Carver and his house of sirens and underground, drug parties was born. Throw in missing girls, unsolved mysteries and  a troubled narrator and he had himself the perfect plot for a noir novel.

And what could be more noir than Manchester? The rainy, grey streets, the looming towers, the long and winding canal paths… Knox’s writing is dark, with the scenes set mostly at night and always in winter. The secrets uncovered are gritty and gruesome and the plot is well executed. A must read for any fan of dark, British thrillers.