The Stranger Times by CK McDonnell

CK McDonnell's Manchester-set comic mystery, The Stranger Times, is an urban fantasy and yet I don't think you'd necessarily have to be a fan of that genre to love this book (my partner isn't and he did). Even the most larger than life characters felt real to me and while I've never worked with a naked Rastafarian and a furious drunk who keeps a shotgun in his office, I have absolutely worked in a tatty office with a bunch of shambolic misfits and I found myself recognising many elements of that in The Stranger Times

The Stranger Times of the title is a weekly newspaper dedicated to the news other newspapers won't print - hauntings, alien landings, cryptozoology, and all the other things that readers of the real-life Fortean Times will be familiar with. Edited by Vincent Banecroft, a veteran of Fleet Street whose career seem to have taken a spectacular nosedive at some point, the paper has its offices and its mysteriously sinister printing press in an old church. At the start of the novel, Hannah Willis - whose own life is also not quite working out as planned - arrives for a job interview just as the Stranger Times team are reporting on a mysteriously brutal murder. And after that, Hannah's world will never be the same again.

If I had to categorise The Stranger Times I think I'd describe it as being a bit like a cross between Good Omens and Slow Horses with a bit of Rivers of London and a smattering of Neverwhere. It's very funny indeed, and although it doesn't shy away from supernatural horror, it has a genuine warmth at its heart that I enjoyed.

It also makes excellent use of its setting - I've lived in Manchester for 18 years now and McDonnell captures its off-kilter character perfectly. I read the first few lines of another review of this book (I couldn't read the rest as it was in The Times and thus behind a paywall) which began with 'Manchester is not an obviously magical city. It's a city for realists, not fantasists' and I couldn't disagree more. There's more to making a city magical than picturesque Tudor shopfronts or Georgian crescents - as Tony Wilson famously said of the city 'We do things things differently' here and Manchester is full of eccentrics and oddball. CK McDonnell absolutely seems to understand that there is a much magic in disused mills and industrial canals as there is in dreaming spires, and that comes through powerfully in The Stranger Times. 

The jokes come thick and fast and while there's a satisfying plot resolution, there are also characters who seem to be very much at the beginning of their own stories, and I look forward to reading more about them when the sequel to The Stranger Times is published in 2022.