Reviewed by Jay Stringer
It was somewhere in the last few paragraphs of “Outside The Circle”, by Ray Banks, that I discovered I’m getting squeamish in my old age.
Not a great place to be, for a crime writer.
But enough about me. (never enough about me,) how is the story?
“Outside The Circle” tells of an American journalist living in Japan, and stuck reporting on American news. This guy hates the job, but we also get the sense that he would never make the decision to leave unless it was done for him. There’s a truth to this that anyone who has been stuck in a dead-end job will relate to; you might dislike the role, but you also never leave it. Often because you can’t, due to money, debt, or obligations. For our protagonist, this is dialled up to 11, as he’s living in a foreign country, alone and isolated, surrounded by people speaking a different tongue.
This leads to another trait of good noir, and something that’s been present in Bank’s work stretching right back to the Cal Innes series; Characters who are lying to themselves. Any writer can tell a story about a protagonist battling against external forces, but the real trick is in recognising the traps we set for ourselves. A real noir character is both the protagonist and antagonist of his or her own story.
In “Outside The Circle”, our man on the ground sees himself as the only person fit to tell truth to power, and doesn’t see that, maybe, it’s his own attitude and demons that are keeping his career down. This is the second trait that runs consistently through Banks’s work. He always has a firm grip on the psychology of the characters, and as a result, so do we. They’re always real, always believable. The next step, of course, is for the reader to question just why we see so much of ourselves in these self-deceiving characters, but that’s maybe just too uncomfortable.
The story wastes no time in immersing us in the world, with tight prose and telling details. The character himself name checks Hunter S Thompson, but I was reminded more of John LeCarre’s Honourable Schoolboy, in the way I was dropped right into the middle of this world, and felt like I could feel the sweat and stale air in the offices, and the heat in the night air.
For the most part, we’re given a straight up noir tale of a journalist investigating corruption and abuse in the world of Sumo wrestling. This idea alone feels like it could carry a much larger story, and I’d pay to read it. In keeping with the rest of the anthology, however, Banks throws us into a sharp turn, and the tale goes down a more supernatural (or psychological, you decide) path.
This is where I discovered that, at 35, I now get a bit light-headed when reading about blood. (See, I told you there was never enough about me.) The story is wrapped up in a good ‘be careful what you wish for’ bundle, and although the plot takes a sharp turn, it’s also an inevitable one. Once we get there, it’s clear that was always where this character was heading, and we would be forgiven for expecting Rod Sterling to step in and explain the moral of the fable.
As a criticism, though, this is also the point where the story starts to feel rushed.
After all the time given over to immersing us in the world and character, the wrap-up feels a little too quick. Of course, that’s always a risk with short stories, and especially ones that are built on the premise of a character setting himself up for a fall. That fall usually comes quick, and hard. In this case, though, it sticks out a little more because it’s also the point where the more fantastical elements enter the story, which highlights the change in pace. As a result, it feels like the story is a little less confident of itself in the home stretch, and is in a sprint to the finish line.
That aside, this is a crackin’ slice of noir, with a fun twist. It’s been a while since I’ve read a short story from Ray Banks. After a string of good novels, it’s annoying to be reminded that he’s better than most of us at shorts, too.