The Stranger Times begins with drama. An unidentified man leaps from a 42-floor building after ingesting a concoction that he hopes will transform him into some kind of mythical creature. Most of the public would likely think he’s lost his mind; the world has been thoroughly convinced that magic isn’t real.
Cut to our protagonist. Former wealthy socialite Hannah accidentally set her unfaithful partner’s house ablaze while burning a pile of his clothes in their garden. She’s narrowly avoided being charged with arson and lost virtually everything in the ensuing divorce.
Dejected and desperate for a source of income, Hannah applies for a gig as assistant editor of The Stranger Times, a small Manchester tabloid. It advertised the following vacancy: “Publication seeks desperate human being with capability to form sentences using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply.”
The first few chapters of the new 420-page novel from C.K. McDonnell (the pen name of former stand-up comedian and TV writer Caimh McDonnell) quickly establish the writer’s ambitions: a mixture of comedy, compelling storytelling, and the supernatural.
This isn’t your typical stuffy paper that publishes news, features, and hot takes aimed at attracting rage clicks. The Stranger Times sources its stories on a monthly “loon day” when local crazies are invited to pitch ideas. There’s a woman who believes she was Cleopatra in a past life, a man who is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Macbeth, and someone who says that he saw a UFO.
Overseeing the operation is cynical and self-aware editor Vincent Banecroft, a former Fleet Street tabloid heavyweight who, like Hannah, has fallen on hard times. Nowadays he drinks too much and says things like “First rule of journalism: know how to shimmy down a drainpipe!”
Banecroft, who is the most interesting and three-dimensional character in McDonnell’s story, justifies himself with contortions that genuinely wouldn’t go amiss in some newsrooms. “You see we’re not saying it’s true. What we’re saying is look, this mad woman believes this and here’s why she does.” The yarns contained in each issue of The Stranger Times are a testament to the sheer breadth and variety of perspectives possible in a free society, or so the argument goes.
But – and here’s the twist – what if some of these fantastical stories were actually true? What if left was right, down was up, and hamburgers ate people? Or, as the cover of the book asks: “What if the weird news is the real news?” A reasonable question to pose in 2021.
The tenor of The Stranger Times can jar at times. Page after page seeks the reader’s approval and validation with jokes and banter that don’t quite hit home. Take, for example, excerpts from the newspaper that are peppered throughout the book. One headline reads “Homework Eats Dog”, another says “Dawkins is God”. It would have been better if the stories were more left field, like the Weekly World News.
McDonnell’s prose is fine, though there are also numerous clichés. Characters feel as though they’re watching themselves from the outside. Hearts thump so hard in chests that they might explode.
It is unsurprising that The Stranger Times was optioned for television prior to publication; a lot of scenes seem to have been written with the screen mind. There are moments involving ridiculous disguises, pull-back and reveal gags, and dialogue that seems, at times, well, television-y.
“‘Ah, Mr. Banecroft, I do hope I didn’t wake you.’
‘Sorry, sorry,’ Banecroft said, rubbing his eyes. ‘I was having this weird dream where I was suing the Greater Manchester Police for wrongful arrest. Any idea what Tahiti is like this time of year?’”
This isn’t inherently bad, by any means. However, overall it seems that McDonnell was more focused on creating something that a producer could visualise as a Netflix series than writing a novel. In this sense, The Stranger Times is a successful project; it could probably be a huge TV hit if competently produced.
Things do pick up close to mid-way through. A tragedy at about page 160 sends Hannah, Banecroft, and the rest of the newspaper’s eccentric staff on a wild journey, during which they will face down the forces of darkness. There’s an acceptable read on offer here, if you really, really enjoy Terry Pratchett-inspired fantasy and can stick things out.