SIRENS by Joseph Knox
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: a taut, gritty debut thriller
Joseph Knox’s debut thriller SIRENS has taken the U.K. by storm, and it’s no surprise why. Knox, a crime fiction buyer for Waterstones in the U.K., delivers a debut thriller that’s mature beyond its years; taut, sleek, and gritty, SIRENS is urban noir at its finest. Crime novels centering around the drug trade aren’t my typical preference, but having heard such outstanding things about this thriller from friends across the pond, I knew I had to give it a shot - and I’m so glad that I did. Knox is an undeniable talent, and SIRENS is a gut-punch of a thriller. Readers will come to SIRENS for its stunning package and grim plot, and they will stay for Knox’s lean, razor-sharp prose and heartbreaking characters. This is an outstanding debut sure to earn Knox as strong a legion of fans in the U.S. as he has already earned in the U.K.
The mission is suicide.
Infiltrating the inner circle of enigmatic criminal Zain Carver is dangerous enough. Pulling it off while also rescuing Isabelle Rossiter, a runaway politician’s daughter, from Zain’s influence? Impossible. That’s why Aidan Waits is the perfect man for the job. Disgraced, emotionally damaged, and despised by his superiors. In other words, completely expendable.
But Aidan is a born survivor. And as he works his way deep into Zain’s shadowy world, he finds that nothing is as it seems. Zain is a mesmerizing, Gatsby-esque figure who lures young women into his orbit—women who have a bad habit of turning up dead. But is Zain really responsible? And will Isabelle be next?
Before long, Aidan finds himself in over his head, cut loose by his superiors, and dangerously attracted to the wrong woman.
How can he save the girl if he can’t even save himself?
There’s something to be said for a book that can take you outside of your comfort zone and make you so happy to be there. I can count the number of crime novels focusing on the drug trade that I’ve read on one hand, and I have to admit, I thought twice about diving into this book simply because of its subject matter. (Which, admittedly, isn’t the best approach!) If your gut reaction to this book’s plot was to think “this won’t be for me,” I’d ask you to read the rest of this review before making your decision. SIRENS delves into the dark world of a master criminal and his drug empire, but Knox does it with vivid humanity and breakneck plotting that will keep even a cautious reader hooked from the first page to the last. SIRENS doesn’t shy away from the violence and darkness of the drug trade, but at the core of this grim plot the reader will find rich and three-dimensional characters - the very human victims of a brutal business. It’s this element of SIRENS that I found most compelling: Knox explores the innocence lost and lives shattered by a criminal underworld, and leads readers through this maze with a character who is hardly perfect - and yet is (perhaps illogically) endearing in his brokenness.
Aidan Waits is no stereotypical “damaged detective,” and the trials he faces are as much self-inflicted as they are externally imposed - a combination that I found especially compelling. It’s not simply that Waits is tasked with infiltrating a violent criminal underworld; Aidan also has a history of drug use himself, and finds himself suddenly immersed in a world that targets one of his greatest vulnerabilities. A character’s internal struggles are typically even more compelling to me as a reader than the external challenges they might face, and I appreciated the care with which Knox balances the grit and drama of Waits’ job with the volatility of his own mind. Waits is stubborn, reckless, and irresponsible, but he is also compassionate, committed, and self-sacrificing. In Aidan Waits, Knox has all the makings of a strong series protagonist; I’m already looking forward to his (mis)adventures in Knox’s next book.
I can’t decide if it’s Knox’s experience as a crime fiction buyer or if it’s just his natural talent (or perhaps a combination of the two), but SIRENS is about as technically and stylistically masterful a debut as I’ve ever read. SIRENS hums with energy; its tight plotting and impeccable pacing driving the reader ever forward into the darkness. There’s not a gratuitous word to be found in Knox’s lean prose - readers will find SIRENS as sleek and streamlined a thriller as they have read in recent memory. But don’t mistake the sparsity of Knox’s writing as lacking in detail; Knox paints a vivid - in fact, sometimes graphic - portrait of the dark world Waits immerses himself in. Knox’s plotting is equally outstanding: what begins as a search for a missing girl becomes something else entirely, and readers will hold on tight to the rollercoaster plot that unfolds in SIRENS. The revelations that come to light in this thriller are as heartbreaking as they are compelling, exploring the gut-wrenching human fallout of the shadowy criminal world central to this book, but also exploring the evils that can hide out in the open, in plain sight.
I might never be a reader who gravitates towards books with subject matter like that of SIRENS, but I will be a reader who picks up anything Joseph Knox writes from this point on. SIRENS is a stunning debut: a gritty, grim journey down into the underbelly of society - a masterclass in urban noir. If your taste in books is more aligned with mine, where this subject matter might be a bit of a stretch, I would challenge you to consider reading SIRENS as an “outside of your comfort zone” thriller in 2018 - I’m confident you will be as impressed with this debut as I continue to be.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Crown (February 20, 2018)
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