Author - as Joseph Knox - of the hit crime debut Sirens, Joseph Knobbs also has a day job as crime fiction buyer for Waterstones. As one of the best-connected and best-read crime writers, he talks about the rude health of the genre and how it chimes with the #MeToo movement
Joseph Knobbs happily admits that going from stacking shelves at Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester, to crime buyer for the retailer within a decade is the stuff of bookselling dreams. But if crime fiction’s most coveted retail job wasn’t enough, Knobbs went and did what many book trade folk threaten but invariably never accomplish, and wrote a novel, using the pseudonym Joseph Knox. Eight years in the making, Sirens (Black Swan) was a "powerhouse of noir" as Val McDermid described it, and the first in a series following Manchester detective Aidan Waits. For a man who knows what draws the Waterstones crowds, Sirens proved Knobbs could practise what he preaches, and sold a healthy 10,000 copies in hardback. Doubleday publishes the follow up, The Smiling Man, next month.
"If you’re a crime fiction fan, I really don’t think there’s a job quite like this," Knobbs says. "I imagine Foyles and WH Smiths have their own crime buyers, but there’s a level of autonomy and trust here that’s amazing. My job is to read good books and promote good books, and it means an incredible amount to me to see my own title among them: it’s surreal. In my bookselling days, I would look at the names on the spine and think, how do I get to be that guy?"
Knobbs is keen to stress that even with his industry connections, sealing a book deal was no easy feat. "Sirens went out under a different name at agent level," he reveals. "But when it went out on submission, my agent, Antony Topping at Greene & Heaton. said - which I agree with - that sooner or later I would have to reveal my identity and publishers might not be happy to think the wool had been pulled over their eyes. In reality, there were publishers who didn’t take it on because of my job, others simply didn’t like it, and those who did like it, really liked it. I didn’t get the impression it was because of my day job."
The Smiling Man is set to build on Knobbs’ reputation for crafting a distinctive Northern brand of crime fiction. "To me, it’s a much better book than Sirens, it’s a more immersive and mature reading experience," he says. "I took a six-month sabbatical to write the novel and stayed in Moss Side, Manchester, for a period of time. The door to my place wouldn’t fully open, and I’d have to skirt and edge my way in. There was also a washing machine in the hallway because the previous owner was so scared of the local hoodlums they had pushed it up against the front door every night. My aim was to get an immersive, gritty experience - which I certainly got, but I’d be awake all night thinking I’d get my head kicked in. But I’m glad I went!"
More than entertainment
With his buyer’s hat on, Knobbs is enthusiastic about the state of crime fiction today. "It’s in rude health," he declares. "I would never try to predict a trend, I think it’s a false game. The public appetite leads you one way then another, and recently we’ve rocked from the Scandinavian craze to psychological thrillers." The popularity of the latter, he believes, is a sign of the times. "Some people say the crime novel is not a social novel - that it’s just entertainment. I would totally dispute that: it’s exactly where society is at the moment. Psychological thrillers are usually written by women, with a female protagonist and male villain, often in a domestic setting. For many men, the experience of women is being illuminated for the first time via #MeToo, and that it’s not a problem that exists just at the top of Hollywood but everywhere. Crime fiction is reflecting that."
While discussing contemporary topics, the subject of the new Staunch Prize comes up: a new literary award for thrillers that don’t feature violence against women. "My inclination is if Val McDermid says something listen to her. In response to this prize, she said that in pretending that the problems of sexual violence don’t exist, are we really helping, or is it better to expose it? At the same time, I think there’s room for different prizes. Undoubtedly someone has and will write a great crime novel where a woman isn’t killed. I know my books wouldn’t be welcome, but there’s space for everyone."
What to watch for in 2018
When Knobbs switches from discussing his own book to those he buys and backs, his passion is just as great. "A big breakout for us was Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins)," he enthuses. "We didn’t expect to sell 50,000 copies. Also, The Dry by Jane Harper (Little, Brown) completely dominated the crime fiction conversation - it’s basically it a great character-led mystery. We loved it: it sold 150,000 copies across the market, and we’re at least half of that."
What else is he championing? "There are so many interesting titles out there," he continues, "for example Mick Herron, whose Slough House series (John Murray) is about a group of clapped-out spies - it’s funny and entertaining, like an anti-John le Carre. Then there’s Denise Mina’s The Long Drop (Harvill Secker), which reimagines the case of Scotland’s worst ever serial killer, Peter Manuel. We’ve seen a lot of this type of fictionalised history before, there’s a legacy there from James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood to Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of it, especially given the popularity of Serial and Making a Murderer. All in all, I feel good about the industry."