Danny had never been out here before. He’d heard the moors were bleak, but he wasn’t prepared for the sheer unrelenting nothingness of the area. It was like the world had been horizontally cut in two –sky at the top, moor at the bottom, with nothing to provide any form of relief from the two themes. Not even a tree. Not one. In any direction. Bleak.
David Nolan's debut novel is one of those that I'm having a hard time gauging how much to say about the plot. If I don't keep a foot on the brake pedal, I know I could easily go on and on and quickly give away everything -- and where'd the fun be in that for you?
Not that "fun" is a good word for about 96% of the experience of this book. This isn't one of those books (not that there's anything wrong with that).
Half of this book is told in April of 1990. Rookie radio reporter Danny Johnston is assigned to cover a murder miles away from the story that he wants to cover (and that just about every other reporter in the Manchester area is covering), the real-life riot at Strangeways prison. As Danny is watching the police fight the wind, he sees the body they're trying to cover with a tarp. It's a young boy, clearly the victim of murder. A few days later, he'll learn just how brutal the killing is -- but it doesn't matter. From the moment he saw the body, Danny was committed to making sure the killer is caught.
The other half takes place in 2016, when noted television report Daniel Johnston wraps his car around a tree. He's drunk -- he usually is, it turns out -- and this is the last time. The iPhone video of his exit from the car and the drunken ranting and falling that ensues doesn't do his image any favors. He's facing criminal charges, the collapse of his career and therapy. Between some great medication, someone to listen and a lot of free time, he makes some progress on putting himself back together and decides to go back to Manchester to try to complete the quest he started so long ago. He also explores some of his own demons along the way -- we don't spend that much time with that, but enough to get a better idea what's behind a lot of his own behavior.
In addition to Danny/Daniel, there's a small-town newspaper reporter, three police detectives, several Radio Manchester employees, an MP and some residents of a children's home and the woman who runs the place that serve as the major characters in 1990. In 2016, we still see most of these characters -- just at new stages in their lives. Some of them have moved past this crime, others remember it as much as (if not more than) Danny. None of these characters are the kind of splashy or obviously entertaining individuals that many mystery novels are peppered with -- they're simply well-rounded people. Flawed, with obvious issues and strengths.
From the first chapter (see the quotation above) to the end -- there is a bleak feeling pervading this work. Between the geography, the situation, and the weather that's the best word for it. I don't describe the feel of books often enough -- but this is one of those books that the adjective "atmospheric" was invented for. There's an atmosphere, a mood, an undercurrent running through this book. Hopelessness surrounds the so many of these characters. Wretched also works to describe the feeling.
Which isn't to say that this is a book you trudge through -- you don't. You really don't notice the time you spend in this book, it swallows your attention whole and you keep reading, practically impervious to distractions. Yes, you feel the harsh and desolate atmosphere, but not in a way that puts you off the book. You want to get to the bottom of things with Danny and his friends/allies.
The mystery part of this book is just what you want -- it's complex, it'll keep you guessing and there are enough red herrings to trip up most readers. As far as the final reveal goes, it's fantastic. I had an inkling about part of it -- but I didn't see the whole thing until just a couple of pages before Nolan gave it to us. Yet when the reveal is finished you're only left with the feeling of, "well, of course -- what else could it have been?"
And then you read the motivation behind the killing -- and I don't remember reading anything that left me as frozen as this did in years. There's evil and then there's this.
This is a stark, desolate book (in mood, not quality) that easily could've been borrowed (or stolen) straight from the news. Nolan's first novel delivers everything it promises and more. You won't be sorry if you give this one a shot, you're not going to read a lot of books better -- or as good -- anytime soon.