1948 Portvieux City. A scandal photographer shoots a brutally murdered woman through his lens.
Kat Clay’s debut novella is a nifty hybrid of hardboiled and weird. It tracks a nameless scandal sheet photographer’s unsettling investigation into a series of grisly murders that are visible only to the lens of his camera. Its setting in 1948 Portvieux City, a fictional US metropolis riddled with grime, crime and sleaze on the scale of any New York or Gotham, matches perfectly the Photographer’s psyche, tainted and haunted as it is by the ghastly violence of the still-recent Second World War. Knowing just how corrupt the city is, from the police through to the influential Marne family – father, son and daughter – the Photographer is determined to both keep to himself the strange ability of his camera and to discover the truth behind the fate of the murdered young women. As he draws closer to uncovering that truth, and to Miss Marne, the family’s beautiful daughter, the danger he faces grows ever more bizarre. Ever since its invention, the photographic (and filmic) image has held out a fascination to popular culture that is tied to its arresting of time and its ability to teeter on the boundary between the forensic and the ghostly. It allows things to be seen that otherwise would not. Everything from the Cottingley Fairies, Antonioni’s Blow Up, the folklore of the ghost child in Three Men and a Baby and the ‘science’ of ghost hunting – which was rationalised to great effect in the Doctor Who episode ‘Hide’ of a few years back – rely on the hidden evidentiary possibilities of photography. Like the older versions of photographic uncertainty, the central narrative tension in Double Exposure rests on the deferral of the attempt to rationalise the uncertain image, the psychic need to find its place in the natural or the supernatural universe. Clay’s take is to play on a kind of noir-era nostalgia for the uncanny possibilities of analogue photography. While it might be that the dead women are visible to the Photographer through his lens in the moment he is looking at them – a nod, perhaps, to the potential of the digital photographic image to remain uncanny – the story is nevertheless suffused with the narrative tension that surrounds the processing of analogue film: the potential, long after the event, for discovering in a physical artefact something that was not originally visible to the naked eye. While there are moments where the writing could do with some careful editing, Clay is clearly a powerful writer, able to lift images out of the ordinary and into originality. A description of the Photographer developing images in a dark room – “he placed them into the developing tray and agitated the chemicals like the subtle humming of a dragonfly on water…” – works perfectly to get across the idea of the character’s near-nervous industry. Once the weirdness of the uncanny spell is broken in Double Exposure, and the visibility in the camera of the invisible dead women is ‘rationalised’ – however weirdly and perhaps a just a little too soon – the re-framed facts are assimilated into the larger story-verse without missing a beat. This is perhaps one of the more attractive parts of the novella: while it’s concerned with psyche and logic, it doesn’t have the scope to linger in either of these for too long. The story just kicks on, regardless of the smaller details of logic and credibility, and takes the reader along for a cracker of a ride, answering along the way Miss Marne rhetorical question to the Photographer: “Since when has a photo ever told the truth?”