Set primarily in the Midlands of the 1980s, Out of the Dark falls somewhere in the terrain triangulated by Mike Hodges’s Get Carter (1971), Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979) and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006).
It is also under the influence of JG Ballard. But its motorways are not London’s near-future-but-never-happened orbitals, nor are its high-rises desublimating enclaves of bourgeois acquisitiveness and hierarchical obsession. Rather, it all takes place in actually-existing concrete landscapes of marginalisation, disconnection and dereliction – ‘neither in Walsall nor West Bromwich’ and thus ‘equally inconvenient’ in all directions. And it rather more grungily quotidian and irreal-adjacent than anything in Ballard – closer, perhaps, to M. John Harrison or Ramsey Campbell.
And while the story it tells is full of twists and turns, genre-playfulness and sharp observations – as is the story within the story – what I loved most about Out of the Dark is something much more personal. I was born in Staffordshire, in a small-now-swallowed-in-the-conurbation Staffordshire village, but all my family were from Birmingham, from the Perry Barr/Perry Beeches parts of Great Barr, with outliers in Handsworth and West Bromwich; and behind my paternal grandparents mid-terrace two-up/two-down (with an outside loo), on the far side of the allotments onto which the garden backed, was an aerial stretch of the M6. And although we moved down to Devon when I was four years old, there is something ineffable about the litany of place names threaded through the novel: in chapter five alone, Perry Barr, Great Barr, Sarehole Mill, Kings Heath, Cotteridge, the impossibly distant Worcester, Bourneville, Harborne, Dudley Road, Perry Barr Island, Aston Lane, Swan Island, Billesley, Walsall…
And if this is nostalgia, it is not inappropriate for a novel enamoured of noir – especially when, for me, it is so oneiric and bittersweet Mark Bould, Bristol University, April 2022
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.
Basil Ransome-Davies for Shiny new Books
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In a high rise on outskirts of Birmingham, Daniel Quinn has rented a flat that was used for a few scenes in his favourite film noir. He watches the videotape on repeat, searching for the answer to a puzzle he keeps us in the dark about. As Quinn describes the film, its various angles and scenes intersperse with his own life – both past and present. All the while his intense obsession with Out of the Dark specifically, and film noir in general, make us wonder how reliable he is as a narrator. Gaffney describes both the film and Quinn's life with incredible precision, blurring the line between reading and watching. (It’s not surprising given that Gaffney lived in a flat just like Quinn’s.) Just like a film noir, Gaffney deftly handles past and present, dropping both clues and red herrings along the way, all the while pulling us towards the answer that Quinn is searching for.
The Crack, Newcastle
Absolutely loved this. British suburban/urban noir set in Birmingham at the end of the 1980s. Gaffney’s writing has the rare gift of being clever, playful, and readable all at once. Stories within stories - makes stunning use of a fictional film script/voiceover in a way that feels completely natural yet is surreptitiously "postmodern" (but without any academic claptrap - it’s simply great fun). Lots of intrigues to keep you reading and some lovely misdirections by the author which pay off in a satisfying way. And it's genuinely funny too, with lots of geeky and eccentric details in the characters and what they get up to, and a knowing, winking sense of pastiche in how it exploits film noir conventions. Highly recommended.