When you think of your favourite fiction, you might think of complex, brooding characters, or labyrinthian plot twists that keep you guessing to the final page. Sure, these are what make stories great. But the unsung hero of great fiction is, in my book (pun intended), well-drawn settings. When a work of literature is rooted so distinctly in a certain place it just takes on a realness that cannot be achieved by plot or character alone. With the place – imaginary or real – described in such detail, it’s not difficult for your imagination to fill in the blanks and transport you, utterly and entirely, to another world.
If you haven’t read Joseph Knox’s Aidan Waits trilogy, you’re missing out. Sirens, The Smiling Man and The Sleepwalker are in some ways your classic page-turning crime novels, headed up by the troubled and brooding Waits who, like all good fictional detectives, is as flawed as he is brilliant. But there are two main characters in Knox’s trilogy: Waits, and the city of Manchester.
Manchester plays such an integral role in shaping Knox’s story. It is mapped throughout the narrative so distinctly, using real road and place names that allow Mancunians (adopted or otherwise) to follow the progress of the story, almost in real time. It’s more than that, though. As Joseph Knox himself said of Sirens, “I wanted a book that could only exist in this night time city.” He draws Manchester as a sprawling, glittering city almost permanently in darkness, and makes reference to the Manchester Arena bombing of 2017, so that the city becomes its own character – one that is integral in the story. “Joseph Knox owns Manchester in all its grimy colours,” says fellow crime-buff Val McDermid. Quite.
The result of locating the Waits trilogy so distinctly in Manchester is two-fold, though. Alongside the regular ‘whodunnit’ style plot is another story – that of the relationship between Waits as a character and the city. Philip Hensher wrote in a piece for The Guardian about the importance of establishing a relationship between character and setting: “a novel has to place the psychologies of individuals in a delicate relationship with the world that formed them.” Indeed, it seems that Waits is a direct product of the city of Manchester: both have a ‘dark side’ beneath their exterior, and both struggle to reconcile the “toughness on one hand and…romance on the other”, says Knox. The trilogy is a masterclass in how a setting can be seen to reflect, or even shape, a character and add a further dimension to a narrative plot.
Of course, I’m biased. Having lived in Manchester for over five years, and partaken in the city’s nightlife more times than I can count, I understand the sense of danger and possibility that hangs over the city in the early hours of the morning. I think the reason that Knox’s use of setting is so powerful, though, is because we can all relate to feeling a connection to a place, one that is wrapped up with our sense of self. As Alice Munro put it, “story is place. You do not have a story of life without an actual place. You can’t separate one from the other.” Whether it’s our hometown, the place where we came of age, or somewhere seemingly distant from our daily lives – most of us have a place that has come to define our sense of identity, just like Manchester has to Waits.
Knox’s trilogy is an example to all budding novelists on the power of place when it’s done right. From mapping the city to create a tangible sense of reality, to exploring the intrinsic link between person and places – Knox takes his trilogy to the next level by employing Manchester as a character in its own right.
Words by Polly Riggs
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