The second installment in this Urban Fantasy series cemented the impression I derived from The Stranger Times: that CK McDonnell’s take on the genre is a winning one, moving away from its usual mix of magic, darkness and characters’ inner demons to create a blend where humor and the uncanny fuse into a story that remains engaging and entertaining from start to finish, even when actual monsters come into play.
In the first volume the author introduced the motley group of people working at the Stranger Times, the paper reporting on weird occurrences not so much as a way of lending them credit but rather of exploring the supernatural as a duty to the public. We therefore were able to know the chief editor, Vincent Banecroft – on the surface an unpleasant individual given to heavy drinking and scarce personal hygiene; his long-suffering secretary Grace and her daily battles against her boss’ endless streams of profanity; the intern Stella, a young woman whose origins (and powers) are shrouded in mystery; reporters Reggie and Ox, peculiar but lovable people. The new addition to the staff, Hannah, came to work for the paper as a last resort after facing the troubles of a messy divorce.
At the start of This Charming Man, some time has elapsed but the paper’s troubles keep piling on: the latest problem coming from the realization that the workers renovating the building’s facilities have also installed a secret trapdoor, most certainly as a first step in kidnapping Stella, whose supernatural abilities make her a coveted target. But that’s not everything, because the city of Manchester, where these stories are set, seems to be plagued by a series of vampiric attacks, in dramatic contrast with the tenet – accepted both by mundane and supernatural circles – that vampires don’t exist…. On top of that (did you think the above could be more than enough? Well, think again!) Ox has some serious financial problems, of the kind that involves gambling debts and unsavory characters – those of bodily harm persuasion; Hanna is dealing with her as-yet-to-be-determined feelings for a police inspector with…er… an undisclosed passenger in his head; and we get to know some new players, among them a man who can answer only in the most unadulterated truth, and lives on a boat together with a talking dog.
One of the best elements in This Charming Man is that the main characters grow in depth and facets, so that we get to know them better – or to change our first impression of them: this is mainly the case for Vincent Banecroft, whose abrasive outward attitude hides an inner pain for the loss of his wife, whose spirit he tries to contact through the help – as flimsy and difficult to handle as it is – of the ghost of Simon, the young man who wanted to work for Banecroft but lost his life in the previous book. Seeing the Stranger Times’ editor literally grasp at moonbeams to reconnect with his dead wife changed my perspective on his personality and while I cannot say that I now view him with sympathy – because he’s foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and despotic as ever – I can see where he comes from, and many of his attitudes make more sense.
Hannah also improved a great deal: she is far less of a fish out of water than she was in the first book – or at least she is where her work at the paper is concerned, because when it comes to dealing with Inspector Sturgess and her as-yet unformed feelings about him it’s another matter. But when she has to deal with Banecroft, his temper and his idiosyncrasies, Hannah can turn into something of a dragon, and she has no qualms in battling with him word for word: their heated exchanges are among the best sections of the story, and I like to see – or rather, to perceive – how her boss must secretly enjoy this new facet from his newest acquisition. There are also moments in which we see Hannah bonding with her colleagues, particularly Reggie with whom she teams up during an investigation: in this way even Reggie’s character is given a chance to gain more depth and to come more into the light.
As for the story itself, I could not help but be intrigued by the appearance of vampires, and the way they are portrayed here – as a form of mysterious infection rather than the mere product of an attack – adds to the attraction of the story, where both the Founders and the Folk (the movers and shakers working behind the scenes) have an interest in the proceedings, an interest that is not exactly benign… Not every question gets an answer in this second book, and the still-hanging narrative threads look very promising so that I can look forward with great interest to the next volume in the series, knowing that it will prove as intriguing and amusing as the previous ones: what I saw so far of this continuing story offers a delightful mix of humor and weirdness and enjoyable character that makes The Stranger Times a more than welcome addition to my TBR.