Review published on October 11, 2017.
I had heard a lot about Sirens upon its publication, read quite a few rave reviews, but hadn’t got around to reading it. Eventually I picked up a copy, mainly because it’s main character was an undercover police officer infiltrating an organised crime ring – undercover policing and organised crime being issues that I’m interested in. And wow.
Sirens is an amazing book and deeply original. Our protagonist is Aidan Watts, a deeply troubled detective constable who’s been suspended from duty. As such, he’s been thrown a lifeline by his superior: go undercover in the seedy backstreets of Manchester to infiltrate the operation of a drug lord, Zain Carver. So far, so average, one might conclude. But the author elevates what might be a familiar plot through several original threads.
For one, the author is not a former police officer himself. These days readers are exacting in their demands for accuracy, unforgiving when an author makes a mistake in police procedure. Faced with this an author can go one of two routes: conduct copious research or find another way. The problem with research is unless the author is a police officer themselves, they still might make a mistake. Alternatively, as some authors do, they might fill their books with pages and pages of mind-numbing detail. Joseph Knox, the author, takes the other route. By having his protagonist suspended and recruited off the books for a deniable operation, he’s able to tell his tale while avoiding getting bogged down in all that tedious detail. This isn’t a criticism, far from it, for what we have here is a slick, fast moving tale, full of tension where Aidan is at risk from nearly everyone he meets and has none of the safety net an undercover officer run in the traditional way might have.
A second interesting strand are the “Sirens” of the title. Zain Carver attracts troubled young women, runaways and those from broken homes and these he uses to collect the proceeds of his drug distribution from Manchester’s bars and clubs. Aidan meets a few these women who are all fragile and vulnerable in their own way and these characters had a certain frisson to the narrative. They also lead to a major sub-plot, for one of these women is the daughter of a leading politician who pulls strings to undermine the drugs investigation and have Aidan watch his daughter instead. This leads to an intriguing foil of tension between his boss in the police, who wants him to focus on the drugs, and the politician who wants his focus elsewhere.
A rival gang made up of vagrants and drug addicts adds yet another layer of tension, but it’s the Manchester that the author conveys that really brings this novel alive. There’s a cliché about crime fiction that it’s all about a sense of location. I don’t believe that myself, I’ve read many a good crime novel that could have been set anywhere, while similarly I’ve read many that attempt to instil a sense of place and come off no better than cheap travelogue. When crime fiction gets sense of place right however, it can be magical. The author of Sirens gets it right; Manchester here is a bleak place, its austerity inflicted wounds still to heal.
All this said, I’ve often struggled to define in my own mind what makes a good book, how one author will write a novel that seems original and fresh and another will write something that seems pedestrian and humdrum. As I’ve written before in other reviews, I think in the end it comes down to a certain fairy dust, a magical ingredient that is hard to put one’s finger on, that is in the quality of the author’s writing itself. So, in conclusion, I’m saying that Sirens has that magic fairy dust and it’s for that reason I recommend it.
James Pierson 5/5
Sirens by Joseph Knox
Doubleday 9780857524331 hbk Jan 2017