The Stranger Times by CK McDonnell

Bantam Press | 2021 (14 January) | 415p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hannah Willis has got all sorts of problems since leaving her husband, home and privileged life behind – not that she regrets it – and now, for the first time in her life, she needs to find a job. Apparently her qualifications, of which she has none, are perfect for The Stranger Times and, after a particularly peculiar interview, finds herself appointed as the assistant editor of this Manchester paper. Of course, this means she has to work for Vincent Bancroft, the Editor, one of the most obnoxious and unstable people you could meet, who has fallen on bad times and would like to take it out on anyone he meets and especially those he employs.

But this is no ordinary paper. Its unusual band of reporters are on the look out for the strange and unexplainable – whether it’s a haunted toilet or a dog that was eaten by homework. But even they aren’t ready for Moretti, a very short American who has just arrived in Manchester, who leaves behind him a trail of deaths, murder, misery and pure evil. Sometimes the monsters are real.

The Stranger Times has such a great premise – as well as being a really attractive hardback – and I couldn’t wait to read it. CK McDonnell is such a witty writer. He’s also a good observer of people and it’s the people that really give this novel its colour and shine. The focus is largely on the paper’s employees. I particularly liked Reggie, a well-mannered rather posh gentle man, who, on the rare occasions when he’s riled, comes out as the Scouser he presumably once once. But each of the characters has a story that makes reading about them entertaining, and also rather touching. Stella, the office girl or lost waif, is so well drawn. Hannah is the main character and carries the story well as she looks on with bemusement while being very ready to roll up her sleeves and get on with it.

Manchester is such a fantastic location and is a character in all its own right. I spent my teenage years near the place (in the glory days of the Hacienda) and I loved the reminder of familiar names and places. It’s a great city and I think that’s captured. It’s full of life but there’s also an undercurrent, a potential mythology to it, every bit as much as there is to London, and it’s good to see the novel is set away from the capitol.

The Stranger Times is undoubtedly a very entertaining read. I loved the extracts from the newspaper’s pages that can be found scattered throughout. I laughed a great deal. I must admit, though, that the urban fantasy, and the horror, at the heart of the novel doesn’t feel particularly innovative or new. My main issue, though, is the character of Vincent Bancroft. A reviewer on the back of the book mentions Mick Herron and I did find that Bancroft was just too similar to Jackson Lamb. I’m a huge fan of Lamb and so I did have trouble getting past this. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the laughs that The Stranger Times gave me and I became very fond of Hannah and Stella. And I loved spending time in Manchester again.

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