Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Joseph Knox has taken the world of thrillers by storm with the first novel of the Aidan Waits Thriller series, and with True Crime Story he takes a side-step to write a standalone story. It follows the investigation conducted by a crime writer, the author himself, into a woman named Evenly Mitchell, who became obsessed with the disappearance of Zoe Nolan who, in 2011, walked out of her dorm room never to be seen again.
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Joseph Knox Becomes an Investigator
Disappearances and vanishings have been plaguing missing persons units at an ever-increasing rate, our population always on the climb and urban labyrinths sprawling themselves further and further. I think we’ve all fantasized, in some capacity at least, of taking up the reigns of an investigation to find the truth behind the disappearance of so many people who end up as nothing more than pictures in the media. This is precisely what Joseph Knox sets out to do by writing himself into his own novel, True Crime Story.
Just to be clear, this is indeed a work of pure fiction, and despite the fact the author inserts himself into the plot, he is not the same person in the story as he is in real life, having some of his own dark secrets for the reader to discover… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The novel is presented as a type of story withing a story, beginning in 2011 with the sudden disappearance of Zoe Nolan, a nineteen-year-old student from the city of Manchester. One day she simply slipped away from a party never to be seen again, leaving behind more than a few devastated people, including her parents, boyfriend, friends and twin sister.
We learn about the first story by following the second one, centred on Evelyn Mitchell, a writer acquainted with Joseph Knox. At some point, she became obsessed with Zoe’s disappearance and started collecting thorough interviews with anyone and everyone who knew Zoe. Slowly but surely, she built up a picture from these testimonies which contradicted the official version of events.
On his end, Joseph Knox corresponds with Evelyn, receiving by e-mail chapters of her book as she was writing it, along with all of her findings. As the case takes on more unpredictable twists and turns, Knox embeds himself into the investigation, yearning to discover a tragic and life-changing truth, one which extends beyond Zoe Nolan to the countless innocent victims who vanished without a trace.
Fiction Formatted through Reality in True Crime Story
Though the idea of writing a fiction book in a format suitable for a work of non-fiction isn’t a completely new idea, it’s certainly not one we get to see very often, much less executed correctly. This sort of endeavour has plenty of little pitfalls, the major and most obvious one being its fictional nature; after all, non-fiction books can get away with a messier structure and a lesser prose in light of the truth they bring to the world.
When I started making my way through this novel, I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly sold on the idea and feared I was in for a rough ride. The narration largely consists of transcripts, excerpts from interviews and emails exchanged between Joseph and Evelyn, and at the start things do feel a little disjointed, making it difficult to find one’s footing.
It does take a little while before all the pieces of the puzzle slide closely enough together for the reader to really develop a good sense of the big picture, but once that point is crossed the story relentlessly sinks its hooks in until the very end. While I do understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I do think it’s the type of flaw which deserves to be overlooked, especially since it ultimately doesn’t waste your time, setting up everything bound to happen down the line.
In my opinion, Joseph Knox made excellent use of the non-fiction type of format, keeping it well within the realms of realism. For the most part, if this case was presented to me as a real occurrence, I wouldn’t have too much trouble doubting it. Of course, we must remember it is still a novel in the end, and thus the paint of the author’s imagination can never be truly hidden, at least not for long.
If there is one element I’d like to applaud the author for, is how he addressed the ending, never losing control over the story and keeping it stuffed well within the frame of realism, especially in relation to crimes which have to do with missing people. While this naturally means the conclusion isn’t as satisfying as it would be in a novel which sticks to its nature, I think it definitely has its place in the genre; a little dose of the real world is sometimes quite necessary in works of fiction.
The Unexpected Pariah
Now that we’ve gotten the peculiarity of True Crime Story out of the way and know to look at it as a work of pure fiction, there is a logical question which can’t help but follow: is the story itself actually any good? Being more grounded in reality, Joseph Knox certainly has less room to manoeuvre than he would have had otherwise, but I believe he still manages to do a lot with it.
To begin with, it becomes clear fairly early on that Zoe Nolan is far from being a young little angel everyone has been incessantly crying over. The more digging Evelyn does into the case, the more interviews she collects from the people surrounding Zoe, the muddier the picture around her innocence becomes, and the closer we get to unearthing secrets no normal person should have.
I’ll admit, I was taken a bit out of it when I noticed how many of the people Evelyn was interviewing were referring to Zoe in a negative manner, something I’d have trouble believing in a real missing person’s case. When this type of misfortune strikes someone, even those who wish to see them in a grave tend to soften their hearts. While it did work quite well from a storytelling perspective, it was a minor flaw in regards to the realism.
The story of the good girl who in reality was tortured and corrupted is nothing new, but Joseph Knox handles the subject with good care and respect. I found myself reminded on more than one occasion that while this particular story might be fictional, there are plenty of real-life Zoe Nolans across the world, and nobody lights a candle for them.
Finally, True Crime Story also has excitement in spades, something I wasn’t expecting considering the format of the narration. Plenty of people are involved in the case, and it seems like they’re all keen on keeping dark family secrets, telling lies, betraying each other, having love triangles, and everything else which comes along with this sort of drama. For those who enjoy complex investigations with plenty of moving parts, this is a real dream come true.
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The Final Verdict
True Crime Story by Joseph Knox is a rather interesting mystery thriller, successfully pulling off the experiment of writing a fictional story about a vanished young woman and structuring it like a non-fiction investigation. Despite a couple of small flaws here and there, it manages to intrigue with its multifaceted plot driven forward by a large cast of suspects with secrets aplenty.
If you’re looking for an original thriller centred on the investigation into a disappearance and are keen on it being presented like a documentary, then I believe you should definitely give this unique book a try; even if you won’t enjoy it as much as I did, I doubt it will leave you indifferent.
Joseph Knox is a British author born and raised around Stoke and Manchester, before moving to London where he published his debut novel, Sirens, which became a bestseller translated into eighteen languages. It also marked the beginning of the Aidan Waits Thriller series, which he then continued by publishing The Smiling Mani and The Sleepwalker.