Review by Basil Ransome-Davies
The title echoes that of Out of the Past, a canonical film noir that ends uncompromisingly in a double catastrophe and leaves the future of a heartbroken woman hanging on a lie. Nobody wins. Other Hollywood noirs may soften the outcome; the darkest – such as The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Gun Crazy – refuse to. They are acknowledged classics, the counterweight to effusive American optimism. But British noir from the 40s to the 60s – is that a thing?
The BFI believes so, its prize exhibit being The Third Man, a movie directed by Carol Reed from a script by Graham Greene including a role for the vinegary Brit Trevor Howard, but foregrounding US and European stars and significantly set in war-damaged, occupied Vienna. Other BFI examples are It Always Rains on Sunday (‘a noirish halfway house’) Brighton Rock (‘sentimental ending’) and The Criminal (directed by ‘Hollywood exile Joseph Losey’).
All due respect to the website of a hallowed institution, I’d call that slim pickings. But what can you do if the object of desire is so obscure? What David Gaffney has done is to mobilise the wicked imagination that makes him a maestro of flash fiction to invent a classic British noir as the driving concept, and title, of a novel, Out Of The Dark. Initially, though, the reader is in the dark, lured down a 21st-century rabbit hole where the familiar is fantastic and an allusive drip-feed of concerns stemming from the past – a common noir gambit – supplies the enigmatic ‘hook’ that creates tension and impels curiosity
And it gets curiouser and curiouser. Picture this: in 1988, in the Black Country, ‘halfway between Walsall and West Bromwich’, a young man, Daniel Quinn (authorial hommage?), rents with surprising ease a flat in a soulless high-rise apartment block overlooking a motorway. Why? In order to study, obsessively, on VHS, a 1962 movie he has earlier described as ‘one of the most perfect examples of the genre’ (i.e. Brit noir). It was shot mainly in Birmingham city centre but included, so cinema folklore has it, interior scenes in Daniel’s flat. He believes, or hopes, that a scrupulous analysis of Out Of The Dark will ‘help me find myself’. As a measure to combat alienation that sounds like a very long shot, the more so since to judge by the excerpts quoted it’s a derivative mash-up of noir clichés with cookie-cutter ‘hard-boiled’ dialogue to match (“It’s a game, Hamish, only a game.” “Can I win?” “Of course not. Play a game with me and you can only lose. But you can lose well or you can lose badly.”, etc}. The credits alone are a good film joke, ranging from Mathilde Pelletier, ‘half French, half Indian’ as Eva Ni-Ri-ain, a.k.a. ‘Peanut’, the movie’s femme fatale, to ‘Contemporary furniture by G Plan’.
Nor does the gonzo treatment end there. Though Daniel arrives as a lone visitor, he is quickly familiar with friends, neighbours and others. The locality seems crowded with oddballs: Betty, the precocious 12-year-old scooter-girl who always strays on Thursdays; John Ireland (the cognomen of a Hollywood actor/director) whose fixation is seeking and acquiring an empire of rented garages just to keep them empty (or are they? Betty might know); Battersby the suspicious (in both senses) police officer, who could be Schrödinger’s lawman, good-cop and bad-cop in one; Agnes, a faded star who maintains an existential link with the eponymous movie, also coincidentally present. Maybe not quite a family or a community, but a congregation of the offbeat, the non-adjusted. More than once I was reminded of Nathanael West or Carson McCullers, American authors whose work patrols the margins of society, whose characters, authentic in themselves, exist permanently outside the mainstream. All is relayed through he perceptions of the narrator, himself a free-floating ego or reflecting consciousness whose own story threatens to dissolve into the screen drama he intensively tracks.
Not all of the novel is parodic or satirical, however. The author’s approach has a broad scope. As the story progresses through its three sections, a variety of time shifts, displacements, alternating registers occur, even a changed perspective as Daniel Quinn is observed at one stage through an ‘objective’ third-person lens. It engages with the darker issues that are traditional motors of human emotion and therefore of creative fiction, summarised by critic Ellen Torgerson as ’heartache, illness and crime’. The past, the everlasting past, survives in memories of pain, grief and loss as Daniel recalls a youthful love affair that ended tragically. The final section, like Alice in Wonderland, features a courtroom scene, with John Ireland as the accused and Daniel as a vital witness, and concludes soon after a visit to the Parisian grave of Samuel Beckett, a literary giant who, because his subject is mortality – the ultimate noir condition – is often written down as a pessimist by those who discount his humanity and humour.
To cap the increasingly dreamlike, kaleidoscopic montage that ends the book, Daniel has a shot at summing things up:
After all, when all’s said and done, what’s real… Can there ever be a true version of anything?… Everybody’s story is both a lie and the truth, all at the same time. We just have to decide which version we like the best.
Is that so? I’m tempted to answer, like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, ‘baby, I don’t care.’ Let the epistemologists argue themselves into knots about that one. David Gaffney has dealt the cards with fiendish dexterity, and it’s up to the reader to play the hand. Fortunately, Daniel Quinn’s odyssey in the West Midlands, an unfairly derogated region of which I have warm recollections myself, displays a fresh, individual energy in its versatile mix of the playful and the serious, freely shuffling the actual with the imagined, that makes it pleasurable, compulsive reading. Here is a gift that keeps on giving till the last page. Buy it, read it, enjoy.
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
David Gaffney, Out Of The Dark (Cōnfingō, 2022) 978-17739961404, 258 pp., paperback.
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