The movie based on this novel, Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Jacques Tourneur, stands today as the ideal type of a film noir. But the book deserves recognition as a classic in its own right. Short in length yet dense in its plotting, spare in its language yet shot through with casually vivid poetry, marked by a keenly observed sense of place (with locations ranging from the canyons of Midtown Manhattan to the hills and streams near Lake Tahoe) yet suggesting the universality of myth, this is a suspense yarn such as Hemingway might have wished to write. The mood here, evoking a lunch-counter America in which cosmic doom occupies a corner seat, recalls that of Hemingway’s short story “The Killers,” which also formed the basis of a classic postwar noir film.
Red Bailey, who operates a filling station in a remote Western town, one day discovers that his previous life as a New York–based private eye isn’t something that he can put behind him. Eleven years ago, a professional gambler hired him to track down a vamp named Mumsie McGonigle, along with some $50,000 of the gambler’s money that she’d taken with her. Once Red located her, she got her hooks into him, as vamps are wont to do, and he ended up running off with her and with the money. At that point, he might have known that he’d carved out a future for himself that wasn’t worth very much. But in the world of noir, knowledge and hope have a star-crossed relationship with each other, just as men and women do. So now, back in the present, Red must head eastward—toward the big bad city of his past and away from the sylvan land where, in the meantime, he has met an honest woman and begun to find a kind of happiness.
Red’s anguished plight suggests an alternate path to the one taken by an earlier tempted detective, Sam Spade. Mumsie McGonigle gained the kind of hold on Red that Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in the Maltese Falcon, could never quite exert on Spade. (Note the similarity in the women’s names, each one identifying an Irish-American colleen as a modern siren.) While Red does learn his lesson, it comes a crucial moment too late, and his tortuous course toward deliverance provides a cautionary tale whose moral is not rigorously hardboiled, as the moral of Spade’s tale is, but genuinely tragic.