Book Review: The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox
By Kristin CentorcelliJanuary 28, 2019
The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox is the second thriller in the Aiden Waits series set in the seedy streets of Manchester.
Readers that like their crime fiction with a heavy helping of darkness will find a lot to love in Joseph Knox’s knockout follow-up to Sirens. DC Aiden Waits is not a favorite of his colleagues or his superiors. He’s been clean for a short time, but his addiction to various drugs and his tendency to operate outside department regulations has landed him on the night shift. The night shift is not where star detectives go. His partner, DI Peter “Sutty” Sutcliffe, is not anyone’s idea of a match made in heaven.
Sutcliffe was one of life’s great nature-nurture debates. Was he a born shit, or had he just grown into one because of his unfortunate name? His suit jacket, filled to breaking point by his body, looked water-damaged with sweat, and he was giving off so much heat that we sat with the doors wide open.
Did I also mention that Manchester is in the middle of a stifling heat wave?
Sutcliffe’s face, neck and body were swollen in odd, ever-shifting places, and his skin was deathly pale. He looked like he’d survived an embalming. We never used his full name, just called him Sutty to avoid distressing the public any further.
So, our troubled cop is stuck with someone that is universally despised, just for very different reasons. It makes for an interesting partnership, to say the least. But, they do have a job to do, and when they get a call about a body in the grand, historic, and supposedly empty Palace Hotel, Aiden never could have imagined where it would lead them. In room 413, they find a man in a chair facing the window. He’s nicely dressed with cobalt blue eyes and a rictus grin. He’s also very dead. They also have an injured security guard who claims not to remember much, just that someone clobbered him over the head with a fire extinguisher. The autopsy of their unidentified man, who has been dubbed Smiley Face, uncovers some very, very strange details: the cause of death seems to be poisoning, his fingerprints have been surgically removed, and his birth teeth have been filed down to pegs and fitted with crowns to avoid dental ID. Aiden and Sutty also discover out that rooms in the Palace were being rented out to prostitutes, which significantly complicates the case.
He’s nicely dressed with cobalt blue eyes and a rictus grin. He’s also very dead.
Chasing down leads with Sutty isn’t easy on a good day, but this case leads Aiden on a labyrinthine search that goes to some very, very strange places. Sutty isn’t an idiot, but he doesn’t like Aiden (he doesn’t like anyone, really) and he won’t hesitate to throw him under the bus if something goes south. Additionally, Aiden’s superior has made it very clear that he wants his head, and his career (what’s left of it) on a platter. There is no room for error.
Knox’s Manchester is a gritty, dark place, full of cavernous, dank nightclubs where women and girls are fodder and equally dark streets where life is cheap, and trouble can be found in short order. Being sober isn’t easy on Aiden, and he laments how he left a previous relationship with a lovely bartender, Sian, who is now engaged to another man. Knox gives us a glimpse into Aiden’s childhood, and by the time it’s over, readers will understand why Aiden is so tempted to snort or drink anything that will take him to a better, lighter place.
Knox has a gift for atmosphere and for building scenes that will stick with you for a long time — after they raise the little hairs on the back of your neck, of course.
But this wasn’t just like all the other times and it never would be again. This time, when the boy’s hand brushed against the door, he almost lost his balance. This time he had the strangest sensation, like he was watching all of this from another life, like he was remembering things that hadn’t happened yet. He had the sudden fear that he’d risen too high out of his body, that he could see as far as the future. In a flash he saw the impossible, open-throated woman sitting inside this house. The slender man, bleeding from the mouth, who he knew would follow him outside. And somewhere else, even further in the future, he saw a figure in a chair, staring out of a window, smiling.
This puzzle box of a mystery blindsided me in the very best way, but the heart of this novel lies with Aiden, who narrates. An often-hallucinatory, otherworldly feel recalls the best of True Detective (without the American South setting, obviously,) and fans of troubled, complicated coppers will be enthralled. There are a few instances where Knox will tear your heart out, stomp on it a few times and stuff it back in your chest. And you’ll like it. This series is absolutely not to be missed, and I can’t wait for the next book. Superb.