Monday, 23 April 2018

Scouring Manchester’s darkest underbelly

It’s all about Manchester, this week. Ah yes, football, chip butties and Boddington’s bitter, right? 

Well ... sometimes maybe. But not today. Today, we’re looking at the darker side of the Northern English capital, its murder, its mayhem, its lurid criminal underbelly … or at least, we’ll be pondering it.

Because not only will I today review and discuss SIRENS, Joseph Knox’s enjoyable slice of Manchester Noir, I’ll be talking about my next Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH (Heck being a Manchester man displaced to London, of course), I’ll be previewing NOIR AT THE BAR, MANCHESTER, a literary event I’m honoured to be participating in, which is scheduled for this Thursday (April 26), and focussing a little bit on four lady crime-writers of my acquaintance, who, while they don’t necessarily live in Manchester any more, or even always write about it, were all born and/or raised there, and, as you’d realise within moments of chatting to them, are still Manchester lasses through and through. 

They’ve all got new books out too, or will have in the next month or so – so a little showcase here ought to be timely.

Before we get into all that, if you’re only here for the SIRENS review, that’s fine. You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blog. Feel free to scoot on down there right now. Otherwise, let’s get on with the rest of the business.

Firstly, a little bit about NOIR AT THE BAR, MANCHESTER.

For the uninitiated, Noir at the Bar is a literary tradition that first began in the States – in the four great cities of Philadelphia, St Louis, Los Angeles and New York, to be specific – and it involves crime fiction readers and fans gathering in specified public bars, where, needless to say, a damn good drink will be had by all, and where several noted crime writers (along with one wildcard entry, i.e. an amateur who wins a draw) will read out five-minute extracts from their next or latest novels.

Hugely popular in North America, the phenomenon spread to the UK a couple of years ago, and Noir in the Bar events are now springing up all over the country. I’ve been honoured to be invited to participate in three so far – Noir at the Bar, Carlisle a couple of years ago, Noir at the Bar, Wigan last year, and now Noir at the Bar, Manchester (which you can attend as a punter completely free of charge this Thursday, 7pm at Lock 91, 9 Century Street, Manchester (M3 4QL).

The full line-up consists of: Paul Finch, Cath Staincliffe (right), Chris Simms, Danielle Ramsay, Heather Burnside, Marnie Riches, Robert Parker, Roger A Price and, of course, the Wildcard. For my own part, I’ll be reading an extract from the new Heck novel, KISS OF DEATH (due for publication on August 9).

On that subject, I was hoping to have a cover to show you today, but apparently it isn’t quite ready yet. I’m reliably informed that it will be available for your perusal on or around May 10, so keep watching this space for that. The official blurb is now up, however, and I’ll run it in a second.

Ironically, given that we’re talking so much about Manchester today, KISS OF DEATH is probably the first Heck novel in ages wherein he doesn’t visit the city. In fact, he seems to go everywhere but, from Humberside to the East End of London to Cornwall. But I venture to suggest that it’s still relevant to today’s chit-chat, because Heck, or DS Mark Heckenburg, as regular readers will know him, is a Manchester native who originally joined the Greater Manchester Police and only later on, in order to escape a family trauma, transferred south to the Metropolitan Police, where he was assigned to the National Crime Group and became a mainstay of the Serial Crimes Unit.

As an ex-GMP cop myself, who ended up relocating to London, it was reasonably easy to get into the mindset of the guy, though even if I hadn’t been, there are precedents I could have followed. You may remember the character Jack Regan (right), from the pacy TV series of the 1970s, The Sweeney (one of my all-time favourite cop shows). Regan was also a Manchester man who found himself displaced to London, joined the Met and became a typical two-fisted DI of the old school.

In an affectionate nod to all that, Heck himself is courted by the Flying Squad in KISS OF DEATH, which sequence includes this passage:

     And it wasn’t as if the Flying Squad itself wasn’t appealing. Heck had worked Tower Hamlets Robbery once, though that had been a smaller role – mainly he’d found himself going after muggers and other street bandits. The Sweeney pursued the big boys. For that reason, there’d always been a certain glamour about it – they were regularly in the press and on TV. Their reputation for being wideboys, just a bit too close in spirit to the East End villains they often investigated, had always put him off in the past.
     But again, things changed.
     ‘Not that Squad DIs don’t do a bit of soldiering themselves from time to time,’ Hunter added. ‘Just think, Heck, you can make your ultimate fantasy real … you’ll be Regan Mark II, a displaced Manchester lad working over the blaggers of London ...’

 Anyway, I won’t go on about it too much because it’s still a couple of months off. As I said, I wanted to reveal the cover this week, but it’s not there yet. In the meantime, here is the official blurb:

A Deadly Hunt - DS ‘Heck’ Heckenberg has been tasked with retrieving one of the UK’s most wanted men. But the trail runs cold when Heck discovers a video tape showing the fugitive in a fight for his life. A fight he has no chance of winning.

A Dangerous Game - Heck realises that there’s another player in this game of cat and mouse, and this time, they’ve not just caught the prize: they’ve made sure no one else ever does.

A Man Who Plays With Fire - How far will Heck and his team go to protect some of the UK’s most brutal killers? And what price is he willing to pay? 

I’m also, as promised, intending to chat at least a little bit today about four Manchester-born female crime writers, whose work I’ve become enamoured with. And all four, as I said, have got new books out, either now or very soon, so it seems timely to give them a bit of a plug.

First up, Amanda Robson may have been born in Manchester, but graduated towards crime-writing after working in medical research at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and in the Poisons Unit at Guy’s Hospital, where she co-authored a book on cyanide poisoning. Her new novel, GUILT, was published one week ago, and concerns Zara and Miranda, twin sisters who always support each other … until Zara meets Seb. Handsome, charismatic and dangerous, Seb threatens to tear the sisters’ lives apart – but is he really the one to blame? Or are deeper resentments simmering beneath the surface? As the sisters’ relationship stretches to the brink, a traumatic incident in Seb’s own past then rears its head and all three find themselves locked in a psychological battle that will leave someone dead. The question is, who?

Next up, we have Caroline England, a Mancunian by adoption as she attended university there (having been born - and whisper this bit - in Yorkshire!!!) and never moved away again after. A lawyer by origin, Caroline’s new book, MY HUSBAND’S LIES, hits the shelves next month, and tells the tale of a wedding gone sour when a close friend of both the bride and groom winds up on on a hotel window ledge, ready to jump. The happy couple, Nick and Lisa, are stunned by this development, soon realising that neither they nor their closest friends have been as honest with each other as they perhaps should. But is that the whole of it? Could it be there are secrets lurking here that might destroy everything and everyone.

Third on the list, Sam Stone has worn a number of different hats during her writing career, dabbling successfully in vampire erotica, the supernatural and steampunk, but moving increasingly now into the world of noir. She’s a Prestwich girl by origin though currently living in Lincolnshire, and a former teacher. Her latest novel, POSING FOR PICASSO, recently published, strongly hints at her horror/fantasy roots, telling the tale of a Russian artist in New York, who becomes unjustly implicated in the mutilation/murders of his various models.

Last but by no means least – because this one is a force of nature - Marnie Riches, by her own admission grew up in a rough part of Manchester but ‘learned her way out of the ghetto’, earning a place at Cambridge University, where she gained a Masters degree in German & Dutch. Previously a children's author, she now writes very hard-hitting crime – the Guardian described her as ‘a leading light in Mancunian Noir’. Her latest novel, THE GIRL WHO GOT REVENGE (published one week ago), throws her regular character, criminologist Georgina McKenzie, into a complex double-murder case in Amsterdam.

As I say, not all these ladies write about Manchester these days, or even live there, but they are Manchester girls to the core, and if you’re a native yourself and/or of a mind to actively support some of the city’s finest daughter, well … you now what you’ve gotta do.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

SIRENS by Joseph Knox (2017)

Detective Constable Aidan Waits is facing dismissal from the Greater Manchester Police. The product of a horrendous upbringing in care, he was probably unsuited for policework from the start, not least because it has brought him into contact with all kinds of irresistible temptations. You see, Waits may be a cop, but he is also an alcoholic and an amphetamines freak, who has increasingly let down his colleagues and got into more and more trouble with his supervisors.

However, a chance to redeem himself comes along unexpectedly when the hard-bitten Detective Superintendent Parrs of the Drug Squad decides that he’s the ideal person – a permanently semi-inebriated wreck! – to infiltrate the Franchise, the Manchester crime syndicate headed by London-born drugs kingpin, Zain Carver.

The purpose of this is twofold: firstly, to gather vital intelligence on a cartel who, now that their main rivals, the ultra-violent Burnside gang, have fallen apart, are completely dominating the city’s narcotics trade (and in the process flush out whichever corrupt copper is supplying the intel that’s keeping Carver ahead of the game), and secondly, to locate Isabelle Rossiter, the wayward 17-year-old daughter of bigwig politician, David Rossiter, who has run away from home and has been seen hanging around Fairview, the palatial residence where Carver hosts most of his drugs and prostitute parties.

This would be a dangerous mission by any standards, but Waits manages to ingratiate himself with the Manchester mob – mainly by letting Carver know that he’s an out-of-favour copper who may be useful! – only to be tempted again by the drink and the drugs, and this time by the women too. Carver’s world is only a pseudo-glamorous one, superficially glitzy on the outside while on the inside it’s rotten and abusive, but he has in his employ a bunch of beautiful young women, his so-called Sirens – Catherine and Sarah Jane, for example – who dress as party girls in order to traverse Manchester’s pubs and clubs, collecting his illicit earnings, and where necessary, supplying yet more illegal substances to the various dealers. In truth, these are sad, forlorn creatures – who knows what kinds of lives they were escaping to come and work here? – who Waits, in his few lucid moments, feels pity for as well as lust.

All these girls think they’re in love with Carver, though his attitude to them is more ambiguous; he cares about them to a degree, and is apparently keen to know what happened to Joanna Greenlaw – a former siren who vanished a decade earlier – but ultimately, though they affect the air of femmes fatales, they are nothing more to the callous gang-boss than mules.

Less attractive fixtures in Carver’s domain are Danny ‘Grip’ Gripe, his deformed enforcer, and brutal, bullying barman/dealer, Glen Smithson. In addition, as Waits is on the lookout for bent coppers, several shady lawmen also catch his attention: Special Branch’s Alan Kernick hangs around a lot, ostensibly to look after David Rossiter’s interests, but Waits soon starts to suspect that he has a deeper involvement in these nefarious activities, while DS Jim Laskey, though a refined sort on the surface, is another one making regular, unexplained appearances (and whose police methods when you get on the wrong side of him have more in common with the 19th century than the 21st).

I don’t want to say too much more about the synopsis of Sirens, because it’s a twisting, turning path that Waits takes as he works his way deeper and deeper into the city’s slimy underbelly.

Suffice to say that his judgement is not always the best. An ill-advised affair with Catherine leaves him vulnerable in many ways, not least because it means he takes his eye off the ball, infuriating his superiors at police headquarters, whose response is virtually to abandon him. As such, when Isabelle Rossiter, now a siren-in-waiting is found dead, the victim of a tainted batch of heroin, which claims other victims too – in a particularly graphic and horrible scene! – he can only press on with his enquiry by joining forces with Carver, who finally suspects that some mysterious third party is stalking his operation, looking to do a lot more damage than simply closing him down …

I’m sure Joseph Knox will forgive me if I confess that my initial reaction on hearing that he’s the new Raymond Chandler was that I’d believe it when I saw it. Time and again in noir fiction, we’re advised that a new master or mistress has come onto the scene who’s going to take it by storm. We’re confidently told that London, Liverpool, Birmingham – or in this case, Manchester – will be the next LA, as a new, downtrodden but street-savvy investigator wends his or her way through a world turned dark with corruption and vice.

All these things, and more, have been said about Joseph Knox and his new character, DC Aidan Waits. But the proof is always in the eating, to quote a cliché, and having now eaten, I think I can safely say – as a former Manchester cop and journalist, and as a crime writer who’s also set some of his novels in the northern capital – that a lot of those comments are non-too-wide of the mark.

Sirens is indeed an impressive slice of Manchester Noir.

All the boxes are ticked: it’s a neon-lit and yet gloom-ridden scene, filled with litter-strewn passageways, burned-out warehouses and seedy clubs, the backdoors to which are always lit by lurid red light, and peopled by hookers, addicts, bent cops, corrupt politicians and of course gangsters – lots and lots of gangsters. What’s more impressive is that this sleazy atmosphere doesn’t come at us in dollops of grandiose info-dump, but is threaded throughout Knox’s narrative. Quite simply, it’s always there; this is the world that Aidan Waits moves through constantly, barely noticing it let alone passing judgement. It’s a cynical ploy by the author, really – a frank depiction of a ghastly environment, which, because he totally immerses us in it, we have no option but to accept, but it doesn’t half work.

Some reviewers, rather indignantly, have said that this isn’t Manchester. Others meanwhile have said that it absolutely is. Personally, I’m not sure it matters. It may be accurate in its portrayal of landmark and location, but Sirens is a work of fiction, not a street-guide. In this book, Manchester is as much a character as Waits, and represents a real effort by the author to recreate the kind of urban jungle backdrop that Chandler did so effectively with Los Angeles, and Mickey Spillane with New York.

And of course, at the very heart of it there lies this hugely complex mystery. Ultimately, by crime novel standards, it’s almost something of nothing – no-one’s attempting to unleash a chemical weapon here, or to massacre a record number of the city’s prostitutes. As fictional criminality goes, it’s relatively low-key. But it’s fascinatingly done, and again, very Chandleresque, numerous puzzling threads dangling on every page, the reader haplessly trying to tie them all together as he/she progresses, and yet there’s never a moment when you think ‘this just doesn’t make sense!’, especially as, when you get to the end, it all comes together in the neatest way.

I freely admit to having started Sirens uneasily, wondering how deep and bewildering the case was going to get, and yet pressing on effortlessly because it’s excellently written, and its short-chapter format makes it very readable.

However, there is one way that Knox’s writing does differ significantly from the original masters of noir, and that’s in terms of his characters.

Okay, as I’ve already said, we’ve got every aspect of the city’s lowlife – not all of which is to be found in low places – though I think there are more extremes here than you’d find back in the golden age. The Bug, for example, is a total horror; a bipolar transsexual addict and whore, who salivates at the prospect of corrupting young people and is more than happy to suckle at the injection wounds of diseased heroin-users. I’m not sure that Chandler, Hammett or any of the other guys ever hit us with anything quite as OTT as that, while Sheldon White and the Burnsiders, the most brutish members of the Manchester gang scene, are more like a tribe of orcs: hideous, uncouth dolts, good only for violence, and happy to inhabit a part of town that lies in darkened, Mordor-like ruins.

Don’t get me wrong; it all makes for a terrific read, but personalities like these represent moments of bleakness so intense that it might put off those readers unequipped with strong stomachs and nerves of steel.

(One other brickbat, while we’re on the subject of such: I could have done without the regular quotes from Joy Division; I guess we all went through a time when we had gurus in the rock world, and a doomy, post-punk Manchester outfit probably seemed very appropriate in these circumstances, but I always worry that this kind of thing borders on pretentiousness. However, that’s a personal gripe, and doesn’t really detract from the overall book).

Now back to the characters: Waits himself, the star of the show, makes for an interesting if very flawed hero.

An alcoholic cop, who is also a chronic pill-head (even though he’s still only young) is, on the face of it, not the most attractive lead. He’s also a bit weedy; though Waits is capable of violence, there is no human brickwork here. He’s no Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. He’s cunning for sure, and he bides his time cleverly, but he’s more a fox than a wolf. Give him a good smack and he’ll definitely go down. And this frailty persists throughout the book; there are several occasions when you feel like telling the guy to get his act together. But highly likely this is exactly what Knox intended. A hero who isn’t a square-jawed cliché might be a big change from the norm, but it’s a refreshing change too (and hell, don’t worry too much if you don’t like Waits; no-one in the book does, either!).

Some of the other characters, and there is a literal plethora to pick from, are sketched more thinly, but they are all clear enough to me; at no stage was I confused about who and what they were, and every single one makes his or her own vital contribution to the story. I’d strongly refute the criticism that there are too many people in this novel, because none of them are extraneous.

I’ve also read some reviews complaining that most of the females in this book are victims, and I think that’s probably true (though several of them are willingly involved in crime), but my considered response to that must be, and it’s a sad observation to make, that even in our modern world most prostitutes are female, most victims of sexual harassment are female, and most of those suffering violence at the hands of wild, dangerous men are also female. In this regard, Joseph Knox is only showing us a hard slice of reality (not that it doesn’t sometimes make you embarrassed to be male).

To round up, Knox is without doubt an exciting new voice in the genre, and Sirens – a genuine piece of Manchester noir, fizzing with tension and menace. It’s as good a debut as I’ve seen in many a year. If you like gritty cop stuff, read it or weep.

And now, as ever, I’m going to try and cast it, in case it at some point gets the green light for film or TV development. Just a bit of fun, of course. No casting-director is likely to listen to me, sadly. Here though, are my picks:

DC Aidan Waits – Warren Brown
Catherine – Talulah Riley
Isabelle Rossiter – Katie Jarvis
Sarah Jane – Romola Garai
Zain Carver – Daniel Kaluuya
DSU Parrs – Angus Macfadyen
Detective Alan Kernick – Geoff Bell
David Rossiter, MP – Vincent Regan
Glen Smithson – Joe Gilgun
DS Jim Laskey – Philip Bulcock

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