After nine independently published and critically acclaimed comic crime novels, Caimh McDonnell has moved into fantasy. And with a change of genre comes a change of name – and a publisher.
McDonnell is a Limerick man raised in Dublin and living in Manchester, where The Stranger Times is set. As in the books of the great Mancunian YA fantasy writer Alan Garner, it’s one of these fantasy novels set in the real world rather than a fantasy world: Manchester ain’t no Narnia.
They are my favourite kind of fantasy books – where the supernatural threads must be woven into the everyday rhythms, architecture and rain (this being Manchester) of the real world. This requires a creation of believability that must straddle the two worlds – the natural and the supernatural – and McDonnell achieves it effortlessly.
The book has an inspired premise: a group of people produce a “news”paper – The Stranger Times (based on the Fortean Times) – which reports on the supernatural and the paranormal, “a chronicle of the weird and wonderful beliefs in the world”. McDonnell says he had the idea for a sitcom 15 years ago. They don’t believe the truth of the stories they are printing but their gradual realisation that such truths exist is part of the real enjoyment of the book.
After a supernatural prologue that lands us bang in the middle of strange goings on, we revert to Hannah, who has left her husband in the south of England and ends up in Manchester working at the paper. Here she joins an eccentric group, including the irascible editor Banesforth, a drunken Irish misanthrope; Manny the Rasta printer, who lives in the basement; Stella, a troubled teen who has been taken in by the black office manager Grace; Ox, the Chinese reporter; Reggie, his investigative buddy; and the mysterious owner of The Stranger Times, Mrs Harnforth.
It is obvious that McDonnell loves creating characters and loves the characters he creates, and soon we are rooting for this quirky and eccentric multicultural bunch. Hannah is initially referred to by the rest of the staff as “the new Tina” – a reference to the previous incumbent, who didn’t last long. She remonstrates: “I just don’t want to be the new Tina. I want to be me. We’re all individuals after all, aren’t we? Same as you want to be you...”
There is a subtle subtext of anti-racism, and a real generosity of spirit permeates the book. It is strangely feelgood but not in a schmaltzy way. The creation of interesting characters, whether major or minor, continues throughout, each with their own complicated reasons for doing what they are doing – even if it is going over to the dark side.
There is an element of police procedural with mysterious deaths that are investigated, and here too interesting characters and dynamics are created – one of the detectives, Tom Sturgess, becomes a major character. This element, as you would expect from a writer of nine crime books, rings true.
This is also a comic novel. Much of the comedy comes from the dialogue and for the most part is very successful. It’s a very funny book. Another source of humour are the stories featured in, or pitched to, the paper. There is a nice device where stories from the paper are printed as they “appear” in the paper, between some chapters: eg Homework Eats Dog and the hilarious Bob-a-Job. Some are funnier than others, and as the story progresses some interrupt the building tension. These excerpts should possibly have been reserved for the first part of the book.
Combining these elements – fantasy, comedy and police procedural – so expertly is McDonnell’s great achievement. As the story progresses, there are so many inventive reveals and devices and character revelations, all paced perfectly, that the story drags you along like some beast with superhuman power.
As the prologue entered with a bang, so the epilogue exits with a brilliant bang – it’s the perfect ending because it suggests another beginning. McDonnell has already finished the second novel, and the first has been optioned for TV by the producers of Wolf Hall. I can’tt wait.