Manc noir as its been christened. Dark, brooding, angry, very angry at times. A real sense of place throughout. A compelling mystery. A social conscience.
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Black Moss is set in my home. Not even my home town, or close by, its set largely in Saddleworth. Uppermill, which David describes as “the posh part of Oldham” in the book was where I grew up. My parents moved to the village in 1985, a few months before my 2nd birthday. I went to St Chads CofE primary school in the village, and Saddleworth Secondary school, also in Uppermill. My sixth form college was in Oldham, in fact I walked past Oldham police station to get from the bus to college on a daily basis for two years. Oldham police station looms large in the story. I still live in Saddleworth even now. All this is by way of saying that the setting resonated very closely with me and some of the themes explored hit very close to home. I responded more powerfully to this book than I usually do, I understand its anger and sense of injustice. The disparity between the coverage for rich and poor and even north and south.
Our story opens with Danny Johnston being woken up early to get up to Black Moss reservoir to try and get the story from the police on the body of a young boy that has been found. Danny is a reporter with the almost fictional Manchester Radio, a young upstart looking for his break, at the outset he is more annoyed at being sent into the middle of nowhere and away from the riots at Strangeways prison which are attracting the eyes of the nations media. But then he sees the body, or a glimpse at least, and starts to understand what has been done to this boy.
Set across two time periods, 1990 and 2016, we spend time getting to know both the young impassioned Danny and the older troubled Danny battling with alcoholism, a nosediving career and a story that was unresolved that he just can’t leave behind. As it turns out in 1990, nobody had reported a young boy missing – leading to the conclusion that the child was likely a care home runaway about whom nobody really cared. Dead children very rarely go unidentified, but this one did. And without articulate parents to cry on the TV or money to fund an ongoing media campaign, he got forgotten about. The mainstream media just couldn’t be made to care. Based to some extent on a real case, David talks about that in his Q&A here, so I won’t get into the detail again, but that sense of anger that a child needs to be from a certain socio-economic background or the right geographic location to matter is a core element of what drives Danny, as well as David, to return to the case years later. The press simply didn’t care about a poor northern kid.
Our story isn’t just about Danny though, he is surrounded by a cast of well-drawn character’s, around whom the mystery builds as the story progresses. Chief amongst them is Kate, a reporter for the local Oldham newspaper in 1990, and owning her own successful company in 2016. Kate shared Danny’s determination and anger in 1990 at the case not getting more coverage, by 2016 she gets drawn back in to the mystery in a far more personal way. To say any more than that would be to enter spoiler territory.
Black Moss is gripping from the outset, the structure does jump from 1990 to 2016 and back again frequently. Clear chapter headings and a chronological organization of events in each of the two years however means that this is never an issue. You know where you’re up to and its almost like reading parts one and two of a story in tandem rather than one at a time. This really adds to the overall pace of the piece. In no rush in the first two thirds of the book, David is happy to take the time for us all to get to know our cast and to build the mystery up. Getting across the injustice he feels requires that we know the world and the events in it, this is at no point boring though and is where the tandem structure really works at its best. The time we have spent getting to know our characters’ and this case makes the final third all the more powerful. When I say the final third, its almost exactly the final third. There is a line on around page 200, you’ll know it when you read it, that sends shivers down your spine. And from then on, we really hit high gear. I don’t think I put the book down after that until it was finished.
Black Moss is a self-contained story, it doesn’t have the feel of the opening entry of a series. However, I do hope that we see more of Danny in the future, I think there is a really interesting character here and plenty of scope to explore him and the north west of England further. This may be the first Manc noir book in Fahrenheits stable. I certainly hope it isn’t the last.