It will hopefully never have to cover anything quite as dramatic, but Altrincham Today can be revealed as a key inspiration for the latest novel from the man labelled the ‘King of Manc Noir’.
David Nolan grew up in Altrincham, once worked on the market and still returns regularly to the town to visit his now nonagenarian dad.
Once best known as a pop biographer – with good-selling books about the likes of Ed Sheeran, George Michael and the Sex Pistols’ legendary 1976 Free Trade Hall gig under his belt – Nolan turned to novel-writing “by accident” a few years ago.
The Ballad of Hanging Lees is the third of the trilogy that has followed – Black Moss and The Mermaid’s Pool were published in 2018 and 2020 respectively – and skilfully ties up a story that does for the reservoirs above Greater Manchester what Danish crime drama The Killing did for Copenhagen.
The hero of all three books is Danny Johnston, like Nolan a former radio reporter who has a useful habit of being there or thereabouts whenever there’s a grisly murder in town.
In the first book he’s covering the murder of a boy whose tiny body has been dumped on the edge of Black Moss reservoir while everyone’s attention is diverted by the Strangeway riots.
By the third, almost three decades later, he’s admitted his “unemployability” and is running his own hyperlocal news site, Oldham Now.
“I couldn’t work out what he’d be doing now,” said Nolan. “I didn’t want him to be running a detective agency as that’s just horrible, but then it dawned on me that he would be running a hyperlocal news operation. He’d be the editor, the chief reporter, the videographer, the photographer, the head of personnel, he’d be doing everything on his own, mainly because he can’t work with anyone else.
“So I sat down with the editor of Altrincham Today and asked lots of technical questions about it, and I was very interested in this notion of when is it right and not right to have adverts in stories. We’ve all looked at stories online and our eyes get blasted with adverts, and you think ‘this is a terrible, tragic story, and someone is trying to sell me double glazing’. You then ask yourself, why have I clicked on this story? It’s like charging someone to look at a car crash.”
Certainly, the issue of whether or not to run ads on death stories is one that Danny has to consider an awful lot. With a gang of online vigilantes prepared to rid the streets of online groomers – literally – he encounters a progressively heinous series of murders, using his hyperlocal platform to both break the story and, ultimately, solve the mystery.
At the heart of it all, in the age of the Facebook paedophile-hunting group, is the troubling question: can you ever feel sorry for paedophiles?
“Naming and shaming isn’t enough for the vigilantes in The Ballad of Hanging Lees, they want to kill them,” says Nolan.
“Who decides what the correct and lawful way to deal with someone who does something that repulses us? Nobody hates paedophiles more than I do, but I thought it would be an interesting notion to think, what if they were the victims in a murder story?
“Without sounding self-righteous, the point of the books was to write a good thriller, but also to poke people and think about stuff that maybe they wouldn’t have before. Fiction is a good way of prodding people in the chest and saying, what do you think about that?”
Given the skill with which Nolan ties all the loose ends of the story together, it’s easy to forget that he’s only been doing this for the last five years. He’s had a successful media career for four decades – spanning radio, TV and writing – but the art of the novel is a particular one. Nolan, spurred into writing his first novel by the sudden abandonment of a separate book-writing project, did not start out with too much hope.
“This is not some kind of humble brag, but I never thought I would finish the first book, I never thought it would be published, I never thought anyone would like it. I remember being stood in the Trafford Centre and getting the first review through. I never thought I would write a second one, and I certainly never thought I would write a third one.
“So like everything that’s ever happened to me, it’s been an accident. I became a journalist by accident, I got into radio and TV by accident. I got into writing books by accident. I don’t kid myself, I am the luckiest person that most people will ever meet.
“When the opportunity falls, if I have one vague skill it’s grabbing hold of it with both hands. No-one is more surprised than me to see it on a bookshelf and think, oh right, I wrote three novels, how did that happen?”
The Ballad of Hanging Lees is published by Fahrenheit Press. To order a copy, visit fahrenheit-press.com
David Nolan will be discussing his latest book at a special event at Altrincham Library on October 3rd. To register for a free ticket, visit this page.