Rule No.1 – Rip up the rule book – do it your own way!

The Sleepwalker, the third Aidan Waits novel, isn’t just a bloody good novel and an exciting read, it’s a trail blazer. This is the police procedural on supercharger; dynamic, original and stylish. It’s a bit sharper, a bit fresher, a bit more street – it’s exhilarating.

Not just modern themes and social context but earthy realism with a contemporary vibe. Wisely cynical, gravely fatalist, and noir to the core, not something you can usually say of the British police procedural. Knox’s Manchester verges on dystopia, it’s a bleak reimagining of the city for bleak times, and The Sleepwalker nails it (agitation, radicalism, poverty, corruption). Only A.A. Dhand comes close to Knox for pushing the sub-genre forward with his Bradford-set Harry Virdee novels. Admittedly, if Knox were a painter he’d only have one colour on his pallet – grey, but as any artist knows grey has so many shades and tones it’s possible to come up with a nuanced and vivid landscape in monochrome.

With Knox we are going to have to get used to expecting the unexpected because he only has two default positions on plotting and creativity. One: be original, which can mean diverging in unexpected ways and at times it feels off the wall. Two, take something familiar, unoriginal if you like, and give it a make over, refresh it, subvert it, make it original. That way you can pay homage and innovate at the same time.

In The Sleepwalker we find Aidan Waits as usual caught between a rock and a hard place, it’s become his permanent address. When Aidan was first introduced in Sirens he was blackmailed into an off the books undercover job to avoid gaol time for drugs offences. The target of the operation was Zain Carver, drug dealer and businessman, it didn’t end well. Waits makes things personal, so not only is he running out of friends in the police Carver is a now a sworn enemy.

The Sleepwalker opens with Tessa picking up her little suitcase and taking it to the car. She shares a joke with the driver about taking a little mystery trip but they both know she has a rendezvous. When they arrive at the house she enters and the driver follows her in. That’s when she finds out that ‘he’ is not coming, not now, not ever again. Yesterday she told him she was pregnant, he’s a family man, Tessa is a loose end. At first Tessa won’t accept the situation but when the driver gives her an envelope containing photos of her family the threat is clear. There isn’t going to be a pay off, she writes the note…

St. Mary’s Hospital, Aidan Waits has spent five weeks watching a convicted killer, the murderer of a family of five, he’s dying from lung cancer. They gave him days but the stubborn bastard is hanging on. Waits and the other officers guarding the killer 24/7 just want Martin Wick to tell them where the body of Lizzie Moore is (the oldest daughter was never found). So far he hasn’t said a word but now he wants to talk to Waits’ boss, Detective Inspector Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe. Leaving Wick with the armed guard, Renwick, Waits heads out to find his boss. By the time they return Wick no longer wants to talk, someone must have got to him. There’s even a photo of Wick having breakfast in the morning papers, how the hell was that possible? It must be an inside job.

Later, Aidan returns to the hospital and crashes in on a junkie with a tattoo on her face squeezing the soap from a dispenser into her mouth in the toilet. He backs off, it’s sad but he can’t get involved, but he should be paying attention. When he returns to Wick’s room Sutcliffe bursts out, he’s on fire, after grabbing the extinguisher and dousing Sutcliffe, Aidan checks on Wick. The bed is ablaze, Wick manages to say one final thing before dying…

A hole in the ceiling leads back to the toilet and the alkie has disappeared. Superintendent Parrs is no fan of Waits and this is a fiasco, the kind of ‘tits up’ operation that is going to need a scapegoat. Waits is probably that goat so Parrs gives him enough rope to hang himself. Waits is temporarily promoted to sergeant and given a new partner. It’s possible Waits was the target, he should have been with Wick when it happened, and who would want to kill a dying man who was about to tell a bereaved family where the final body is? DCI James runs the main case but in his last, last chance Wait gets to run a black op of his own. Find the alkie, find out who took the photo and check out Wicks’ dying words. Waits has secrets of his own he’s desperate to keep but he’s not the only one.

The prologue about Tessa, barely four pages, appears to run in an entirely contrary direction to the story outlined in the blurb, and it’s difficult to connect it to the main thrust of the novel so it’s instantly intriguing. It’s also a chilling scene, one you’ve read before, seen played out in a film, except Knox has his own style and you know there is something fundamental here. It’s almost old fashioned, reminiscent of classic crime, a little pastiche. It’s instantly followed by something very modern and totally original.

The hospital scene as Waits walks into the building just before the deadly fire is so striking. Aidan negotiates his way past the emergency arrivals, patients, doctors, nurses and worried relatives. He’s trying not to get distracted. He’s on the way to Wick’s room when he bumps into the alkie in the toilet, then everything explodes into violence – social commentary and hard action in one passage. Great stuff.

Knox has managed to create a vivid and authentic picture of the underbelly of a thriving but damaged city. This is Manchester at night and the things that lurk in the dark are nasty, very nasty. That’s the best feature of this thriller, the mood and atmosphere, the spiralling darkness. Just when it looks like Waits is at the lowest point the gap between the rock and the hard place gets smaller. He’s going to need every ounce of ingenuity and brass neck to get through this one.

Knox is, as I have said, a master of the unexpected and he’s a writer with a hell of a future, which is great news for the British thriller. The action is breath-taking with a real heart of darkness. In Aiden Waits, Knox has created a character who knows how to dig a hole and keep digging but you have to admire the lengths he will go to just to get answers.

Sirens, The Smiling Man, and now The Sleepwalker – this has to one of the very best police procedurals series ever.

Paul Burke 5/5

The Sleepwalker by Joseph Knox
Doubleday 9780857524386 hbk Jul 2019