Written by Joseph Knox — Disgraced Detective Constable Aidan Waits has been caught stealing drugs and publicly humiliated. His boss, Superintendent Parrs, is an uncompromising Scot with ambiguous motivations who takes the opportunity to make Waits an offer he simply can’t refuse. He can go to prison or use his status as a dirty cop to go undercover and infiltrate a drugs gang. Parrs is after ‘the Franchise’. It’s a criminal organisation run by the enigmatic Zain Carver who is dealing across Manchester, pushing all the usual party drugs and heroin branded ’Eight’.
We join Waits facedown on the frozen pavement. It’s an apt starting point – he is literally as well as metaphorically in the gutter. An unknown assailant has smashed him over the head and as he comes around he is dragged up and taken to meet David Rossiter, MP. Waits’ job just got more complicated as Isabelle Rossiter, a troubled teenager and daughter of the MP is missing and believed to have fallen in with Carver. With Parrs’ blessing Waits is tasked with finding her as part of his undercover role.
The ‘sirens’ are the girls who float from club to club, bar to bar, moving drug money around for the Franchise. We meet Catherine in one of these bars, Rubiks, and then Sarah Jane at Carver’s Victorian pile, Fairview, in a wealthy suburb. Waits meets Isabelle as he gets close to them all, a dangerous game for a copper – even one who has been marked as tainted. Thrown into all this is the persistent mystery of a missing girl, Joanna Greenlaw, who was never found. Carver is suspected of being involved in her presumed death.
The first person perspective plays well and Aidan Waits is an engaging and complex protagonist inked in shades of grey. He had a difficult upbringing and he can’t catch a break, but he can be violent. He drinks heavily and uses amphetamines but he also has a smart mouth and uncanny ability to get himself beaten half to death. It all harks back to conventions of the earliest exemplars of the hardboiled genre.
There is a large cast of characters as we roam through the streets of Manchester. Perhaps too large as with the exception of the ‘Bug’ these people are often roughed out in bold outlines without being quite fully coloured in. There are three prominent females and while Isabelle is painted in greater depth, Cath and Sarah Jane feel more sketchy and superficial. That may be inevitable in a first person narrative but it feels a little unsatisfying at points.
The city provides an atmospheric backdrop and those who know Manchester will relish it. However, the settings are not always distinct enough to anchor anyone unfamiliar with the place as we tour the lowlights. The clash of multiple characters and locations leads to a disorientating dip mid-story where Waits seems to be dashing pell-mell across the city and the narrative briefly stalls. This partially reflects the frenetic pacing rather any significant problem as the interweaving of short chapters give this thriller an impressive page-turning quality.
Stylistically, you can feel the hardboiled DNA being sweated out of Manchester but debutant Knox doesn’t lurch into pastiche. The writing is spare yet telling and the story breezes along encompassing drug dealing, police corruption and politics. It packs a punch and none of the characters comes out of it covered in much glory. Almost everyone is a victim and the endings for many are bleak, unvarnished and brutal. It is an accomplished debut, perhaps trying to do a little too much at times but undeniably gripping. Several days later and it is still in my head. It is thoroughly modern noir.
For more crime fiction set in Manchester’s rougher side, try Tom Benn’s Trouble Man.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars