Book Review: The Sleepwalker

This is the gritty, no-holds-barred, third instalment in the detective Aidan Waits series that I’ve been looking forward to for just over a year.  Like its predecessors, The Sleepwalker is an unsettling and sophisticated crime-thriller written with sublime characterisation and piercing dark humour  … utterly compulsive reading.

contemporary fiction | thriller | crime

Rating: 4 out of 5.

back cover blurb

‘He said he didn’t remember killing them…’

As a series of rolling blackouts plunge the city into darkness, Detective Aidan Waits sits protecting a prisoner on an abandoned hospital ward. He has just one job: to discover the location of Martin Wick’s final victim before the notorious mass murdered dies.

But when a daring premeditated attack leaves one police officer dead and another one fighting for his life, Wick’s whispered final words will send Waits on a dangerous journey into his own traumatic past and into the dark heart of the city itself.

Author Joseph Knox | Published by Black Swan in March 2020 | Pages448 (paperback)

before I go on

Let’s be polite and start with the introductions …

The Sleepwalker is the third book by Joseph Knox; whilst you could easily pick up the story from here, I would heartily recommend you go back to the beginning just so you don’t miss out on an absolute treat of a series. 

The debut book – Sirens – arrived in bookshops with not very much fanfare but it punched above its weight, creating incredible ripples in the crime-thriller ‘pond’.  Just over a year later, The Smiling Man arrived – this time with a genre-loyal crowd of hooked devotees clamouring for our next fix.

All three books are set in Manchester … but not the trendy re-born Manchester their tourist board would like us to think of.  Oh no!  We’re skulking through the unsettling, under-lit, underbelly of the city, rubbing shoulders with corruption and vice at every turn … and that’s just the city’s police. There’s one officer in particular – DC Aidan Waits – who’s the central character throughout the series.  He’s a deeply troubled individual whose demons of addiction and depression are compounded by a seemingly endless cast of undesirables hellbent on bringing him to his knees … if he doesn’t do it himself.  It seems the only reason he’s still on the force is to serve as a human stab-vest, ready to be thrown to the wolves – or the media – by his superiors when they need to deflect the heat from their own transgressions.

my thoughts

The Sleepwalker claws you into its clutches immediately with a seemingly unrelated prologue; but one thing I’ve learned from previous books by Joseph Knox is that no sentence – no word, even – is superfluous; every single one of them is relevant, no matter how innocuous they seem.  So pay attention at all times.  This is a series written by a man with an exceptional eye for detail, and a supreme gift for writing with incredible, almost obsessive, precision.

DC Aidan Watts and his partner DI Peter ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe have been consigned to night duty, sentenced to watch over mass murderer Martin Wick on his deathbed.  Nicknamed The Sleepwalker, Wick has amassed a long list of credible death threats, and a number of attempts on his life during his years in Strangeways Prison, and although it would appear that cancer will claim his life, the human threat hasn’t passed and so he’s under 24-hour armed guard.  Watts and Sutty aren’t there so much to add to the security as to discover the whereabouts of the body of Lizzie Moore, one of the three children Wicks was sentenced for killing twelve years ago, along with their mother, Margaret.  When a photo of Martin Wick in his hospital bed appears on the front page of  The Mail, it becomes clear that there’s something amiss with the security measures.  This is soon confirmed when a final, lethal attempt is successfully made to end Wick’s life – just as he’s about to speak out – leaving Sutty’s life hanging in the balance, and claiming the life of the duty firearms office, Constable Rennick.

Knox’s use of 26 letters to sculpt his characters is absolutely sublime. From the quiet compassion of Naomi Watts to the latent menace of Martin Wicks in the first chapter, the author’s applied the alphabet with an eloquent precision that had me reading … and then re-reading … chapter one in absolute awe. 

On Wick …

His eyes gleamed like they were backlit, as though there was something incendiary behind them. A cold flame that threatened to burn on long after his body died. In spite of the twinkle in his eyes, they were lifeless, full black, and slow-moving. Sometimes he slept with them wide open. You couldn’t distinguish the pupil from the iris, so you couldn’t tell whether he was staring into thin air or looking directly at you.  Some nights it felt like neither, some nights it felt like both. Some nights, when his eyes moved on to mine, it felt like being under surveillance, and I could never quite shake the feeling that some third party was reviewing the footage from inside his head, going frame by frame looking for weakness. 

On Sutty …

My partner was built like a hip flask. A stout, neckless head on top of broad shoulders, with the whisky breath to match. There was something off, curdled even, about his face, which was bleach white all over and studded with strange lumps beneath the skin. Somehow it suited his personality, like the warning sign printed on rat poison.

On Superintendent Parrs

Sitting there in his grey hair, suit and skin, his red eyes looked like two laser sights mounted on some new and terrible weapon.

With Sutty out of action, Superintendent Parrs partners Aidan with the smart, savvy DC Naomi Black, asking them both to quietly investigate the possibility that it was Aidan who should have died in that hospital room with Wicks. For Aidan, it means reluctantly reopening not-so-old wounds and stepping back into the malign world of Zane Carver.  Their investigations start to ruffle feathers, and Aidan soon finds his own secrets being used against him by a corrupt firearms officer, whilst Superintendent Parrs augments Aidan’s torment through a manipulative campaign of his own.  

Aidan can’t shake the feeling that Martin Wick’s dying words would have shed doubt on his conviction, and so the pair find themselves retracing the steps of DI Kevin Blake, the arresting officer all those years ago.  Meeting Wick’s last cellmate, Adam, proves to be pivotal, when a throwaway comment renders the confession statement entirely unstable.  But if Wick didn’t kill the Moores then who did?  And where is Lizzie Moore’s body? Frank Moore, Margaret’s husband, was the sole survivor of this dreadful night. Like all the characters in this book, Frank is written with such clarity, and you’ll find your skin bristling with every encounter.  As the reader, it becomes almost impossible not to jump to the conclusion that he isn’t who he claims to be … but could he really have murdered his own wife and children?

Whilst Aidan’s partnership with Naomi remains fractious, it’s clear that she is the first colleague who has some compassion for the beleaguered detective, and I found myself hoping that Joseph Knox might just succumb to the cliché of their professional relationship becoming somewhat unprofessional. Both Aidan and Naomi are two very likeable characters, and Naomi strives to see the good in him … but I don’t do spoilers, so I’ll not say any more about where the book takes them. 

This is the first book in which we start to learn more about Aidan’s grim childhood and, towards the end, we finally get to meet his younger sister, Anne. However, where Aidan goes so too do his demons, shattering his long-overdue reunion with his sister and almost costing Anne her life.  These final chapters of the book are so nail-biting that I can honestly say I’ve not torn through pages at such a feverish pace before.  The author has written such likeable characters in both Anne and Aidan that it’s impossible to drag your eyes away – you really do want to know what’s going to happen to them.  That’s why the end of the book rushes up at you, full force, culminating in an unforeseen cliff hanger so spectacular that it could signal the end of this hugely enjoyable series … or perhaps it’s the harbinger of big changes.

The Sleepwalker is a book of ten sections, with each section made up of punchy chapters that drive the reader forwards at a brisk pace.  This format works well – it helps to organise the various threads of this case, made less than straight forward by the duplicity and hidden secrets of many of the characters, allowing their stories to reveal themselves in tantalising nuggets.  Packed with vivid characters and intense situations, punctuated with razor-sharp dark humour, The Sleepwalker is a captivating third book in this utterly original series.  I recommend it unreservedly to every reader with a passion for crimes, thrillers and mysteries.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sleepwalker

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