Doubleday | 2018 (8 March) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Palace was once a grand hotel in the centre of Manchester but now this enormous building stands empty of guests and staff, reduced to a bargaining chip in its owners’ divorce, its corridors walked only by security guards. But one night Detective Aidan Waits and his partner, Detective Inspector Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe, are summoned to the Palace. A security guard lies injured and inside one of the rooms a man is dead, his face fixed in a smile. There is no clue to his identity, even his fingerprints have been surgically removed during life. This is a man who wants nobody to know his name. But a clue has been stitched into his trousers. Perhaps there was something this man wanted to communicate after all.
Waits is a detective condemned to the night shift with a partner he detests – the feeling is mutual. Disgrace and scandal have halted his career. He hangs on to his job by his fingertips while his partner Sutty glories in the misery of the poor souls that they encounter on their shift in the dark hours and dark places of this restless city. Waits is determined to solve the mystery of the Smiling Man and his instinct takes him deeper into a case than his superiors would wish but there is a distraction – he is receiving anonymous phone calls, he knows he’s being watched, he knows something is going to happen.
Joseph Knox introduced us to Aidan Waits in his remarkable debut Sirens. That book set a very high standard for its successor to follow but with The Smiling Man, Joseph Knox has achieved something wonderful – a crime thriller that is even better than the fabulous Sirens, a novel that will most certainly feature in my top books of 2018. It is stunning. Its mood – beautifully menacing and sinister – and the figure of Aidan Waits – unlike any other detective I can think of – are wholly original and completely mesmerising. With its frightening, disturbing and desperate kind of dark atmosphere, it is absolutely fascinating.
This is writing of the highest order. And that is most evident with the Manchester locations – usually seen at night – and with the characters of Waits and Sutty. I loved the explorations through the deserted corridors of the Palace Hotel, and the frightening glimpses of light in one of its rooms at night. We also see more of the city’s underworld, reminding us of elements of Sirens. Sutty is an abomination, he really is. Every time you think we might me about to see a redeeming characteristic, his true colours shine out once more and we are repulsed and amused. My feelings for Waits were more complex. We know that he deserves much of the scorn and disgust that is heaped upon him but with him, unlike Sutty, there are moments when he snatches the chance to do good. Or to right a wrong, even if the way he does it is arguably reprehensible. But both Waits and Sutty are set in the context of a police force that has a dark side, just like everything else in this city at night.
The Smiling Man builds on what we learned in Sirens but it can still be read alone. Nevertheless, there is one thread in particular that weaves its way through both novels and so, for the fullest of enjoyment, I’d recommend that you read them in order. The Smiling Man is such a clever, original and engrossing read. This is the crime novel to beat in 2018.