True Crime Story is Joseph Knox’s fourth novel. It’s his first standalone after three instalments of his urban noir series featuring Detective Constable Aidan Watts of Greater Manchester Police. The ‘true’ in the title and the ‘novel’ in the subtitle immediately establish a tension between fact and fiction and the relationship between the two is essential to the experience Knox wants to craft for his readers. The book is about the disappearance of a University of Manchester student named Zoe Nolan and it is not initially clear whether she is a real person, an imagined character, or a combination of the two.
There is a long tradition of merging the real and the imagined in crime fiction, from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, published in three parts from 1842 to 1843, to more recent examples like ITV’s A Confession, released in six parts in 2019. A quick Google search shows Zoe to be a character rather than a person and Knox’s particular combination of crime fiction and true crime is characterised by the use of devices more commonly associated with documentary – interviews, emails, notes and appendices – to represent a fictional sequence of events. The integration of fictional content with factual form is complicated by Knox not only telling the story of the crime and the story of the investigation, but by the story of the investigation being the story of a second crime… Let me explain.
The bulk of True Crime Story consists of chronological extracts from a series of interviews conducted by Knox’s friend, Evelyn Mitchell (a fictional construct), who is writing a book in 2019, just over seven years after Zoe’s disappearance. The chapters of Evelyn’s true crime novel are separated by selections from an email exchange between Evelyn and Knox, which tell the story of the writing of the novel, which is also the story of Evelyn’s investigation into the case. In his prologue, Knox mentions Evelyn’s investigation ending in her death and suggests that the same suspect is responsible for both crimes. The majority of the interview material is from the seven people either closest to Zoe or in some way implicated in her disappearance: Kimberley Nolan (her identical twin), Robert Nolan (her father), Sally Nolan (her mother), Liu Wai (her flatmate), Andrew Flowers (her boyfriend), Fintan Murphy (her friend) and Jai Mahmood (Andrew’s flatmate).
The plot is set in motion when Zoe makes a late decision to join Kim at university and the sisters are assigned the same suite of rooms in Tower Block, one of the least salubrious of the available accommodation options. Both the accommodation and Zoe’s presence are problematic for Kim, who hoped that university would finally free her from living in the shadow of a more successful and more beloved twin, who was destined for stardom as a singer before she failed her audition at the Royal Northern College of Music. Three months later, Zoe goes missing never to return.
The very short extracts from the interviews, often two or three to a page, make for a fast-paced and gripping narrative, ratcheting up suspense as one races through the interviews to find out what happened to Zoe and to get to the next email exchange to find out what is going to happen to Evelyn. A disadvantage of presenting the two stories in this way is that the pleasurable strain it places on the reader absolutely demands a satisfying denouement. Much to his credit, this is precisely what Knox delivers. My only criticism of the novel is that some readers may be slightly disappointed by the killer’s identity – not because it lacks plausibility, but because it may not have been possible to predict given the information to hand. It turns out that Evelyn’s research was not as thorough as either she or Knox believed!
Crime fiction as a distinct genre has been popular for over a century and if you are familiar with at least some of its history, then you will know that it is very rare to come across a genuinely original mystery. My last was Antony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, published five years ago. Knox’s combination of fiction and fact is not only original, but innovative, offering a unique crime fiction experience that pushes the genre to its limits.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars