We are absolutely delighted to host a Q&A with Joseph Knox, author of the exceptional debut thriller Sirens.
Our full review of Sirens can be found over at Dead Good Books (click), but here’s a short summary …
Sirens is an intelligent, multi-layered and explosive thriller, with a cast of characters that will undoubtedly spawn an unforgettable series. The sirens of the title are the girls who populate the dark corridors of the Manchester drug scene – beautiful money collectors and drug carriers, who entrance their victims, and draw them into an ephemeral web. They are ethereal, barely described – ‘a cruel kind of beautiful’ – as they lure, delight and then vanish.
This a stunning and original debut. It’s smart, pacey, gritty and unforgiving; it’s a page-turner and it almost explodes with intrigue and excitement; but it’s also more than that. Joseph Knox has created something of a masterpiece here – a throwback to the best of noir fiction, but also an electrifying, thought-provoking and moving novel that will poke its head above the masses and be remembered. Astonishingly brilliant. For a debut? Unbelievable.
It starts with a teenage runaway. How it ends is up to Detective Aidan Waits.
Isabelle Rossiter has run away again. When Aidan Waits, a troubled junior detective, is summoned to her father’s penthouse home – he finds a manipulative man, with powerful friends. But retracing Isabelle’s steps through a dark, nocturnal world, Waits finds something else. An intelligent seventeen-year-old girl who’s scared to death of something. As he investigates her story, and the unsolved disappearance of a young woman just like her, he realizes Isabelle was right to run away. Soon Waits is cut loose by his superiors, stalked by an unseen killer and dangerously attracted to the wrong woman. He’s out of his depth and out of time.
How can he save the girl, when he can’t even save himself?
Q&A with Joseph:
1. In Greek mythology, the Sirens were beautiful but dangerous hybrids, who lured sailors to their death with their hypnotic music. Tell us how the Sirens in your book reflect the creatures of this pervasive myth.
I was first grabbed by the word ‘Sirens’ when listening to Radiohead’s ‘There There’. Thom Yorke says ‘There’s always a siren singing you to shipwrecks’. The lightning bolt struck immediately. I was writing this book about seduction, lust, danger. At the same time, I was trying to update an idea of the femme fatale and I felt like the word Siren gave the women in the book power. Also, it suggests something great to me: that the main character is being drawn to his own destruction, but by who…?
2. Your writing has been compared to Chandler (and there are distinct similarities between damaged Aidan Waits and Marlowe, and in the blunt, direct and often witty narration, the short, sharp similes), but I also see shades of Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald in Were they influences?
All of the above. Chandler was the first crime writer I really adored. It was more because he could make language dance. Then Hammett could fully inhabit the charisma of bad people. But Ross MacDonald, who became my favourite of the three, was the one who could fully sympathise with the villains, whores and tearaways.
3. On the same note, Chandler was renowned for his similes, and you employ the same device with huge success from the opening page (‘His nasal hairs were jet black and matted together, like the start of Hitler’s moustache’). Was this a conscious device?
When I finished Sirens I went back through the book and deleted as many of these as I could. The book was rife with them, but they were distracting. During the course of writing the book I decided Ross MacDonald was cooler than Chandler. That sympathy was more important than one liners.
4. Anti-hero Aidan Waits has salvaged his career by taking on a job that falls outside any professional police remit, and he effectively compounds the potential damage of this move by continuing to abuse various substances, to embed himself in dangerous situations, and to work outside the law at every opportunity. He’s a man on self-destruct, and his actions often have devastating consequences. Somehow, though, we warm to him, and mentally defend his erratic behaviour and poor decision-making. Tell us about how you created this character, and how he grew and developed as you wrote.
I love crime fiction, but so often I’ll read a book mid-series and want to find out how this hero became such a dependable person. Then I read book one and they just, basically, always were that hero. With Sirens, I really wanted to show a young man, thrown in at the deep end and all-but drowning. Aidan doesn’t always do the right thing, but there’s a seam of honesty – a code – that hopefully people respond to.
5. In the midst of the frenetic, disturbing storyline is the ghost of a love story – a budding relationship that provides a sense that there can be redemption for Aidan. Did you include this to show the sensitivity that is buried beneath his messy exterior, or solely as a plot device?
It’s the most important thing in the book.
Some people have said the ending was cruel or upset them but I don’t see it that way. At the opening of the book, Aidan has never been loved, and has never loved another. Because of this and his scattered past, he’s unmoored and lost in the world – separate and distant from those around him – even those who might try to care. By the end, by god, he’s felt something. Someone has loved him. I drank and wasted and ruined my whole life until someone loved me.
6. On the same note, we have a glimpse of Aidan’s background, and realise that his reliance on chemicals, his lack of compassion, are, in fact, probably escape mechanisms that he has acquired and developed across the years. There are no clear exposes but I wonder if you meant to excuse him, to provide reasons for his chaotic and (verging on) immoral behaviour?
Aidan had a bad, failed childhood that is glimpsed throughout the novel. I certainly didn’t do it to excuse his behaviour. In fact, I knew his past before I knew the events of Sirens. Oddly, he’s a character I’ve been working on and writing into short stories for much longer than I was working on this book. I’ve written short stories of him as a scared little boy, a furious teenager and a wasted young man. A more interesting question is, does his traumatic past explain his becoming a detective?
7. The dark, unsettling and often harrowing underbelly – or perhaps dark corridors – of Manchester is revealed through Aidan’s eyes, yet he never seems to flinch. Equally, every character, from the top echelon of the political spectrum through to the drug dealers and addicts, the barmen, the homeless, the middle classes, the hopeful, and the Sirens themselves, is complicit in the greed, corruption, grief and multifold addictions that manifest its streets. Is this all the product of your imagination, or are we seeing something that needs to be recognised?
Sirens reaches for beauty occasionally – Sometimes I think it looks positively cheery next to the world we’re living in…
8. Sirens is in many ways a study of the Manchester classes, the layers of society and those who people them, and the contrasts are stark and often uncomfortable. Was this something you hoped to highlight?
Absolutely. When I was a poor twenty-something writing the book in Manchester, I couldn’t imagine anything grander, more incongruous or, for me, more unreachable than Beetham Tower (featured on the jacket and throughout the novel). Like all modern British cities, Manchester is the rich and the poor, pitted against each other.
9. Interestingly, too, you have created a cast of characters who represent every one of these layers (and divisions) and, yet, never descend into caricature or stereotype. Each of your characters feels real, believable, and with an agenda and a mind of their own. How do you populate your novels? How do you bring your characters to life?
I’ve lived a colourful life and most of them have elements of people I’ve known. But also I’m a people watcher, and I like to think I can pick out traits others might not notice. Finally, I like people. Just from a distance…
10. There is a series of sophisticated twists, some of them heart-rending; many of them distressing; others satisfying. How hard was this to achieve, and how do you plot?
That’s very kind of you to say. I don’t plot ahead but to say the intersecting series of twists came naturally would be a lie. I rewrote the book for years and years until I was sure it would hurt other people like it had hurt me.
11. This is a book that took you years to write and hone to perfection; how hard to you think it will be to achieve the same level with the sequel?
Sirens took eight years, most of those spent rewriting it thousands of times. I didn’t let it go until I physically couldn’t look at it anymore. That said, I don’t think it’s perfect by any means. Writing is the part of all this I enjoy most, and I can’t wait to get back to it. The ideas cooking up for book two could blow this thing out of the water…
12. Did you set out to write a series?
I hoped to, but didn’t know until I finished Sirens and ideas for a second book started bubbling up, then obsessing me.
13. You have a great deal of inside knowledge of the book trade, and probably some good insights into what makes a selling jacket and a successful marketing and publicity campaign. Did you become involved in this?
I had some jacket ideas but Richard Ogle blew them all out of the water with his beautiful, dark design. In terms of marketing and publicity, again, I was with experts so I just shut up and went where they told me!
14. Were you surprised by the critical acclaim this book has received to date?
Astonished. You never know what you’ve got when writing but, also, you can’t possibly look at it objectively. You can see the ghosts of thousands of failed drafts between the lines. Maybe in five years I’ll be able to read it ‘clean’. For the moment I’m just grateful.
15. You walked the streets of a good part of the UK, signing books, taking part in events, chatting to readers and booksellers. Do you think this is an important part of your immediate success?
I hope so but, at the end of the day, it was just great to see so many bookshops, booksellers and book readers. They’re my people.
16. What are you reading now and what would you recommend?
Insomniac City (coming in 2017 from Bloomsbury) is the best thing I’ve read in a long time – especially as a lifelong insomniac. It’s beautifully written, filled with hope, charm, humour and love. A perfect antidote to the times.
17. What’s next?
My second novel, The Smiling Man, should be released in 2018 if I get my skates on. It’s a fictional reimagining of a real life, unsolved murder case. One of the weirdest I’ve ever read about. Thinking about it, its ramifications, sends chills up my spine.
About Joseph Knox:
Joseph Knox was born and raised in and around Stoke and Manchester, where he worked in bars and bookshops before moving to London. He runs, writes and reads compulsively. Sirens is his first novel.
You can find Joseph on Twitter at @
Published: 12 January 2017