I have never investigated a crime scene nor have I worked the night shift as a police officer, but Joseph Knox made me feel as though I was deeply invested in such work with his novel about Officer Aidan Waits. “The Smiling Man,” a literary noir, is the story of how a crime is solved after an unidentified body is discovered in an empty hotel.
Responding to a routine break-in at the hotel where a lone guard stands watch inside, Waits and his partner Sutty discover a body strapped to a chair in one of the rooms. The grimace on victim’s face indicates he has died painfully. He resembles a smiling man (hence, the title). The guard who began investigating the noises after his call to the police is found unconscious in the hallway on another floor. Waits and Sutty begin their investigation.
Waits tells the story from his point of view. The first-person narration allows the reader to understand how Waits follows the clues to unravel the murder mystery. There’s more going on with Waits than just this investigation, and we learn how his personal life is affecting his career. In a unique twist, his past experiences intersect with the solving of the crime.
Waits was abused as a child by his mother’s boyfriend, Bateman. At the age of eight, he was forced to approach the homes of unsuspecting people. Bateman, and often his mother, would appear after the door was opened to the little boy. They would then rob and often murder the occupants. The last robbery and murder Waits participated as a child intersects with Waits’ investigation of the murders in the hotel.
A recovering drug addict, Waits is on tenuous ground with his superiors. He has a hard time reigning in his temper because of his tumultuous past. Some comic relief is provided thanks to interactions with his partner Sutty, an obsessive user of hand sanitizer who frequently spouts coarse witticisms.
It could be hard to keep track of all the characters, but Knox ingeniously manages to link the past and present of Waits’ life to all the people connected with the crime investigation. Rather than spoiling the conclusion, I’d just like to say it’s satisfying, with warped personalities getting their just dues.
“The Smiling Man” is Knox’s second book in a series about Detective Aidan Waits. Because references were made to incidents and persons from the first book and because some characters reappear in this second book, I recommend that audiences who enjoy noir interspersed with terror read “Sirens” (2018) the first in this series.