Book Review: Sirens

SirensAs part of my recently-concluded Creative Writing degree course I had the opportunity to briefly study Crime fiction, which proved an enjoyable divergence from my recent reading. Indeed, this lead onto a conversation with a friend of mine who’s been urging me to dip my toe into noir crime fiction for as long as I can recall; serendipitously, Sirens happened to be on sale on Amazon and, after a little prod from my noir-aficionado friend, it ended up sitting on my bedside table not very long after.

From the off, I recognised a lot of traits in Sirens that I had identified as part of my studies, in particular in relation to the set text I examined and enjoyed for the Crime strand of the module, Shut Eye by Adam Baron. There are some flawed, morally-ambiguous characters, a seedy, gritty underbelly and the usage of the city, in the case of Sirens, Manchester, becomes a character in itself. Reflecting on my studies, Sirens was making, well, all the right noises.

The book has a gritty, bleak tone that is exemplified by the deliberate choice of setting and time: Manchester in November. Even as someone that is not familiar with Manchester at all (indeed I’m a Londoner) that alone does a great deal to set a mood and tone that the book keeps going all the way through. The presentation of Manchester is vivid in accentuating that sense of tone, even when the action and story move across distinctly disparate areas of the city – abandoned industrial areas to exclusive penthouses to what amounts to the epitome of suburbia are all facades that contain the overarching mood. It’s deeply atmospheric and engrossing, the city itself drawing me in as a reader.

The characters, too, are equally atmospheric; they all occupy shades of grey in terms of morality that are reflected in the bleak winter skies that permeate the Manchester in Sirens. It’s an effective mix, the sensation of not knowing who can be trusted, and certainly having ideas of who is bad and who is good upended and subverted just aided in my immersion. Like Shut Eye, there’s a corrosive, and compelling mix of corruption, vice and politics. Better, none of it is presented in a polemic way; if anything, it’s presented in a realistic, gritty stance. As nice as the reader may consider themselves, they can’t help but relate to how real this all could be, behind the façade of closed doors.

The protagonist, Aidan Waits, is perhaps initially a little cliched, the down-on-his-luck detective caught with his hands in the till but the journey he embarks on allows exploration of the character’s depth – who is he working for? Is it ultimately himself? Overall the protagonist is engaging and effective – both as a character and at his job, so there’s something to relate to beneath the multi-faceted surface. He’s an engaging protagonist and the ambiguity over his end goals is another point that propels the reader to finish the book; now he’s waist-deep in this mess, how is he going to get out of it? Or, more to the point we’re led to question, can he?

Being fairly new to the genre of crime thrillers, I’d cut my teeth on pacey books such as the Jack Reacher books from Lee Child. These are action-oriented and, most pleasing for me, unpretentious and accessible. Approaching Sirens I was a little concerned that, being a more serious, “noir” story, it might not quite live up that accessibility. These concerns were for naught; Sirens has a breathless pace that, while perhaps not as unrelenting as Lee Child’s works, which became a reference, still allows for a great deal of immersion into the atmosphere and world created, but it doesn’t linger too long to outstay its welcome. It strikes what I would say is a very good balance. There’s a lot going on that we experience as a reader throughout the first two-thirds of the book that immerses us in the world; details begin to stick out and make us ask questions. It is these questions that propel us, the reader, into the final third of the book where the threads we’ve been wrapped around begin to unravel. This was very satisfying, and Sirens sets up and ending and then delightfully subverts it; the payoff for persevering through the bleak and brutal landscape of Manchester that is portrayed is very satisfying.

I can only wonder how much more concentrated this would be to someone familiar with Manchester; however, this prior knowledge is not essential and this does well to not impede the accessibility of Sirens as a book; as before, Manchester becomes but another character in the story. It’s refreshing, too; while the story briefly touches the classical setting of noir, London, it purposefully doesn’t linger. If anything, London feels an alien landscape from the familiarity of Manchester. This is an effective subversion of the genre, and I feel choosing a setting the author is clearly familiar with, and isn’t London or Edinburgh helps set it apart. There’s no reason these s orts of urban crime stories couldn’t take place in any large metropolitan area, and again the fact that Manchester becomes its own character in the story helps justify that choice.

All this is pulled together with Joseph Knox’s immersive, haunting and evocative prose. It isn’t flowery by any stretch, but neither is it utilitarian. The sparse, pointed and precise construction of the prose is something I appreciated; it lacks pretention, but it doesn’t lack style. It propels the reader through the story but doesn’t linger for self-indulgent reasons, which is why I burned through the book so quickly once it had bitten into me. This is certainly a characteristic it shares with Lee Child’s work which is a major factor in my enjoyment of those books and the writing fits the mood an accentuates it effectively.

Overall as an introduction to potentially wider reading of noir fiction, Sirens was a strong candidate. Gritty, arresting and immersive; I’d highly recommend it! On the back of Sirens I’m certainly looking forward to reading both more of Joseph Knox’s work and more noir crime as a genre!

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Review: The Vanished Man (Kindle Edition)

I’ve been steadily working my way through Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series of thriller/crime novels and the fifth instalment was another enjoyable outing!

The Vanished Man pits quadriplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme on the pursuit of an illusionist turned murderer who uses every trick in the book (pun very much intended) to evade capture. Slowly over the course of the novel, the true motives behind the murders and the identity of the murder themselves become clear, but there is a great deal of sleuthing before that.

The premise certainly intrigued me – who would better know how to distract, evade and, a prominent theme, misdirect the police than a magician? As the book develops, it becomes clear that there are no straightforward answers to any of the questions the mystery raises. It’s an enjoyable game as the reader both witnesses Rhyme’s efforts to decipher the Conjurer’s motives and methods as well as making their own attempts. It’s this sense of intellectual game playing that made this book an enjoyable and enthralling read. A large part of the enjoyment of a book like this comes from seeing how the investigator unpicks the mystery and seeing if the conclusions are mirrored in the reader’s mind. The Vanished Man certainly succeeds in this respect; there’s also the added urgency of several races against time to save the next victim from this almost completely unpredictable antagonist. Even, at 75%, when he’d been caught, cuffed and the book looked about wrapped up, an almost miraculous escape sets the plot up for a final furlong – the mystery of how?! always playing on the reader’s mind. It’s very good.

The plot is certainly no slow-burner as events do start to snowball quickly, which leaves little time to ponder character motivations too much; there are certainly moments of introspection but time pressures bring out the best abilities of the characters. There’s a number of plot lines that initially seem unconnected but, of course, they do link up in the eventual climax. Who’d have thought a novel about a murderous magician would touch base with anxieties about American nationalism? The prose is direct but not dull; there’s a certain brutality that doesn’t sugar-coat events. But ultimately, all the philosophical motives aside, it all comes down to one thing everyone can relate to: revenge.

In character terms, Rhyme himself continues to be a deceptively-endearing character; his disability and self-awareness give his personality a barbed exterior that is both matter-of-fact and amusing; however, it’s the moments where this facade is allowed to drop that makes him more relatable and, ultimately, human. The series as a whole does approach the idea of how disabled people are perceived in quite interesting and enlightening ways. The other regular cast that form a support network around Rhyme are competent at what they do – and care as much as he does, but in this book it’s the characters of Kara (who aids in this particular investigation) that give a glimpse into the psyche of Rhyme that other characters perhaps wouldn’t.

Regardless, I certainly enjoyed The Vanished Man a great deal. I’m eagerly looking forward to moving on with the series!

Buy The Vanished Man from Amazon UK

Review: The Empty Chair

The Empty ChairI occasionally forget that I’m into certain series and genres, and a recent pondering of a book to read led me to rekindle my interest in thrilling crime drama, and especially that in Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series. Thusly, I picked up the third book in the series, The Empty Chair, and dived in.

I was expecting a taut, thrilling story and wasn’t disappointed. A prevalent theme of The Empty Chair was that Rhyme, the acerbic protagonist and his assistant Amelia Sachs were “fishes out of water” as they reluctantly investigated a series of grim disappearances in North Carolina, a state very far away from their New York base, both geographically and culturally.

The atmosphere of the initial investigation – pitting local detectives aided by Rhyme from the confines of a municipality building against the young abductee whose apparent intelligence and cunning seems to put him ahead at every instance, despite the odds – is chilling as we follow both parties through the swamplands around the small town of Tanner’s Corner in North Carolina. The story appears to reach a climax relatively early on… but there’s 45% of the book left to go, and a series of intriguing and elegantly-countered plot twists piques the intrigue, punctuated with some absolutely thrilling action sequences leaving the outcome at the flip of a page. I thought it was great, although the inevitable explanation of the plot twist was a little trite and predictably polemic.

In terms of the series it moved the character development along rather nicely. Rhyme, a quadriplegic lamenting the limitations of his disability had planned on undergoing exotic and risky surgical therapy to possibly alleviate this condition and is eager to leave the investigation he reluctantly agrees to whereas Sachs is sceptical of this procedure’s chances of success and worried for the future of someone she has grown to care for and even love, not wanting the procedure to put him in any undue risk. It’s an intriguing thread prevalent throughout the book which grounds the main crime, which may be a little dry, with a more human thread that keeps the reader caring about the characters as going concerns. The title of the book is not just an allusion to a means of psychological therapy used in the investigation but as a proxy for Rhyme’s desire to be freed from the confines of his wheelchair and his desperate attempts to make his appointment.

Overall, reading The Empty Chair wasn’t a disappointment, and I look forward to indulging in the next in the series. I’m also definitely tempted to get a more regular reading schedule going to make sure good series and genres that I enjoy don’t go unread for so long!

Rating: 5*

Grab The Empty Chair for Kindle here!