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BookBrowse Reviews The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox

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The Smiling Man

An Aidan Waits Thriller

by Joseph Knox

The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox X
The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Jan 2019, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez
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Multiple dark story arcs spiral through the follow-up to Joseph Knox's noir debut Sirens, as Detective Constable Aiden Waits' past spills into the investigation of an unidentified murder victim.

Joseph Knox's latest turns on a simple premise: an unidentified and unidentifiable murdered man is discovered in the fourth floor suite of an abandoned hotel in Manchester. This ought to be enough drama for night shift partners Detective Constable Aiden Waits and his superior, DI Peter Sutcliffe (Sutty). But then Knox throws in an unconscious hotel security guard, soon-to-be-divorced hotel co-owners battling over custody of the classic building, a string of dustbin fires, and a right wing media type who secretly videos his numerous liaisons. And that's just for starters.

I was hooked at the dead man. When Waits and Sutty find the victim he is seated, facing a window that overlooks Europe's busiest bus route, his lips peeled back in a grotesque rictus. Sutty is quick to sardonically dub him "the smiling man" because there are no clues to his identity. There is no wallet, credit card, phone or clothing label. Furthermore, there is clear evidence that the man has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal his identity. That includes altering both his dental records with filed down, capped teeth, and modifying his fingerprints.

Knox brings more than just complex plotting to the noir table, he also has a decided knack for dark humor and trenchant characterizations. One character is described as "starting to look and smell like the larval stage for something else," while others have "an almost invisible little paper-cut for a mouth," or "raw, exit-wound eyes."

Before leaving the hotel, Sutty, whom the police superintendent comically refers to as "the Elephant Man's ball-sack," is only too happy to turn the bulk of the murder investigation over to the younger man. Theirs is a partnership forged at a portal to hell. Aiden explains that those assigned to permanent night duty must fulfill one of two requirements – they either have no life or no future. He fulfills both. He is a recovering drug abuser, evidence thief (drugs) and now a thorn in the department's side ever since returning to work after getting clean. And so, adding insult (Sutty) to injury (his own dark and broken past), Aiden is commonly both irritated, and irritating to those around him.

With each chapter Knox plunges deeper into the depths of noir. Whether it's a heretofore-unparalleled heat wave, a squalid bar, people who aren't what they seem, or children brutally abused by a person that, "had no internal life...outside of cruelty, he ceased to exist," just when you think things can't get any darker, they do. Much of the story takes place at night, a factor that further highlights the complexities of a protagonist steeped in pain and cynicism.

The Scandinavians may be currently producing what's considered the golden standard of noir, but The Smiling Man offers something a little different. It is steeped in a sweat-drenched heatwave rather than snowy cold, and trades Nordic brooding nihilism for British wit. I enjoyed the pace and the ricocheting plot twists that kept me guessing from one page to the next.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review first ran in the March 6, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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