Joseph Knox, got tongues wagging when his debut novel Sirens was released by Transworld Publishers in early 2017. The tale of Detective Aidan Waits' descent into hell as he succumb to his drug addiction whilst attempting to complete a criminal investigation; was a tale for our times, an anti-hero who wore his vices clearly - at times unlikeable, dishonest and yet equally charming and mysterious.
Waits returns in the sequel or second of the ongoing series, The Smiling Man. Waits has now been banished to the graveyard shift with the only officer who would work with him, a large unsavoury character Sutton - who uses hand sanitiser religiously, it dripping from him like fat our of a chip pan.
Whilst this reader was fond of Sirens, the malevolent nature of Watts was something difficult to deal with - whilst it harked back to the bygone age of literary pulp noir such as Hammett and Chandler; their heroes Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe were certainly capable of bad things they never crossed the ethical line Waits practically triple jumped over.
The Waits we encounter in this second novel is an altogether different character, one who is aware of the harm he has caused and damage to his reputation and close relationships. Now sober but stuck in a shift he can never get out of, investigating the thrilling world of dust-bin fires he fears he will never see the light of day until they get a call to the Palace hotel late one Saturday night.
There they see a security guard injured and further investigation leads them to a fourth floor room (413) that has a man tied up in a chair dead but with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face. This unnerves Waits and the veteran Sutton, and so begins the case to find out who the Smiling Man is or was.
Waits encounters obstacles throughout and not from criminals but as much from his superior, the omnipresent Superintendent Parrs who has his sights set on Waits and would like nothing more than to put him out of the picture.
While the first book wallowed in the dark world of Northern Noir it was drawing, this book is lighter in tone due to a sober Waits being front and centre; his charm and magnetism coming to the forefront - though a bar-room brawl with a former enemy brings out the worst in him.
Whilst Knox focused on creating an atmosphere of noir in the first book, this is more of a tongue-in-cheek noir transplanting the talking of American noir to Manchester; oneupmanship banter flowing back and forth and with the action taking place over summer months there is a general warmth and sunny disposition running through the novel but always with that sinister underbelly ('Fate turns into karma at forty degrees')
Yet that is the cleverness within Knox's writing - the consistent juxtaposition of light and dark; good and evil; right and wrong; the warmth with which Waits is created is merged with the dark of the world he inhabits. There is a lushness and rawness to the novel that radiates throughout and its a pleasure to read and see a young writer growing in confidence with each new work written.
The Smiling Man is published and released from Doubleday Press on Thursday 8th March