Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 31, 2019

Dead Men Running, by D’Arcy Niland

Dustjacket drawing by Russell Drysdale

I began reading this book in an attempt to make room for some new books on my ‘Australia’ shelf, but I knew from the first few pages that I wouldn’t be parting with it afterwards.  Dead Men Running by D’Arcy Niland (1917-1967) had me captivated from the first words, narrated by Joey:

Tuesday Evening, 1916

I heard the front door slam, the feet clattering up the stairs like the rataplan of drums.  The door flew back and rebounded as he charged in, wet as a shag, full of the excitement and urgency of action. I would have asked him who was chasing him only the violence and grimness I sensed shut my mouth on the words.  He said nothing.  He swiftly crossed the room, a slish of oilskins drippling water, and dragged the tin trunk from under his bed.

“What is it?” I said. “What’s up?”

He had two guns in there, the one he settled Amos Frost with and the unlicensed one the police knew nothing about.  He checked and pocketed that and pushed the trunk back. (p.11)

… wet as a shag … a slish of oilskins… can’t you just see him standing there, in his Driza-Bone?

Finished only two days before D’Arcy Niland’s death at the untimely age of only 49, Dead Men Running was published posthumously by his widow Ruth Park.  This is the blurb from the first edition dustjacket:

In this poignant and eventful novel D’Arcy Niland presents the question: What really happens when the ordinary world of evasion and pretence meets a man who is completely honest?
Starkey Moore is this man, an island unto himself, impartial to mores or morals, traditional thinking or his fellows’ opinion.  Yet he is no figure from a morality play; he  is vital, humorous, courageous and completely shocking, as unadorned truth and candour always must be.  Across his path comes the young, lonely Joey, his very opposite, tender, vacillatory, carnal and priggish by turns, needing a hero and insisting upon finding one.
This story of friendship and archaic disaster is played out against a remote landscape during a flare-up of nationalistic rage and hysteria.
The mellow meditative style conceals a steely framework of tense and suspenseful story.  With a Kazantzakis-like simplicity and inevitability D’Arcy Niland leads the reader towards the crashing last chapter.
This is D’Arcy Niland’s last novel, finished only a short time before he died, and this book contains the full story as it was written.

It’s a remarkable story, and the blurb does the character of Joey a bit of a disservice.  This is a coming-of-age story in which hero-worship confronts the reality of human nature.  Though the story is set in 1916, the reader learns through flashbacks that Joey was orphaned in Ireland, came to Australia as a teenager to escape poverty and make a new life for himself, and soon found himself work with the Larrissey family who treated him like a son.  But things went awry when Joey witnessed the indiscretion of his employer’s wife, and he had the maturity to recognise that her fear of exposure had soured their relationship irrevocably.

So he left, and soon found himself alone in a strange town, friendless and sick.  Shivering with fever on the teeming streets of Hope, he was ignored by passers-by until Starkey rescued him, took him home and nursed him back to health.  Starkey also used his hold over the local powerbroker Walsh, to set Joey up with work:

“He owns half this of this town,” Starkey said.  “That’s how I kicked off with him—maintaining his properties.  Saving old houses from the grave. Making them fit to live in.  When I worked it out and showed how much money he was losing in depreciation and repairs he never slept for days.  He wanted me to get a gang and take charge but I told him I’d had enough of it.  Then he gave me this job, bringing me in and making me foreman over all the others waiting in front of me.  But I know why he did it.  He thought I was the one to get more work out of the men.” (p.95)

Walsh needs Starkey more than Starkey needs him.

But Joey gets work with a local auctioneer instead, partly because it was Walsh who turned him out into the rain on the way to Hope, but also because he isn’t sure that he wants to work at the same place at Starkey.  An incident in a café, where Starkey is outrageously rude to one of the customers makes him feel uneasy:

I experienced for the first time a shift of feeling for Starkey, and it worried me.  It was nothing definite; just something vaguely disquieting, like the rumour of a calumny: more, I think, a lessening of respect, a disappointment in feeling the idol chipped.  In every way I disapproved of his behaviour, though I wanted to find reasons to justify it.  There seemed no need for such insulting and cutting remarks especially to women.  (p.97)

When he admits his disquiet to Starkey, he gets a blunt answer:

“Well, that’s me,” Starkey said.  “Take it or leave it.  They poke sh__ at me, I poke it right back with interest.  I’m nobody’s doormat.”  (p.97)

Starkey is an arrogant man who thinks that there are no limits to his often brutal truth-telling.  He is disliked by many in the town because he has offended them and respectable people do not approve of his candour about an affectionate relationship with the town prostitute Chicky.  And in a time of war when nationalism is rampant, Starkey’s former career as a mercenary soldier brings his patriotism into question.  Joey’s support for Starkey makes him friendless too.

Before long, Joey has to confront further unpalatable truths.  His emerging affection for an innocent Irish girl called Teresa Doherty is at odds with his initiation to manhood with Chicky — an initiation that was set up by Starkey.  As far as Starkey’s concerned there should be no hypocrisy about a man’s needs, but Joey finds his tender flirtations with Teresa sullied by his experience with Chicky.  Perhaps this is what the blurber meant by him being priggish?

However, there are worse issues in the offing.  1916 is not just the year after Gallipoli when recruitment went into overdrive because of the slaughter, it was also the year of the Easter Rising. A local group has formed to support the Irish rebels, and it is proposed that trains carrying ammunition for the war effort should be sabotaged.  Some of the supporters think that there is no difference between a British victory and a German one, while others acknowledge the thousands of Irish volunteers fighting in the British Army, while yet others think that Irish independence stands a better chance if the British win the war.  And then there are those who on moral grounds are opposed to any kind of violence to support the Irish cause.

Joey finds himself caught between Teresa’s father Doherty who opposes the sabotage, and Starkey who supports it.  And when it turns out that someone has informed the police about these plans, things get very messy indeed.

Dead Men Running has a nail-biting conclusion, and culpability is tantalisingly ambiguous.

Although I liked this novel very much indeed, there are a couple of aspects which demonstrate how values have changed since it was written in 1969.  There is some casual racism and sexism in the language used, and when there is a suggestion that Starkey’s relationship with Joey might be predatory, the hostility to homosexuals in his rebuttal would be considered extreme today.  Well, we can’t judge books and authors by the standards of the present day; suffice to note these issues so that other readers are aware of them.

The book however, is long out of print.  There appears to have been a Penguin reprint in 1978, but it looks as if there are only second-hand copies available now.

You can find out more about D’Arcy Niland here.

Image credit: DrizaBone: https://everythingaustralian.com.au/riding-coat-heavyweight-oilskin-brown.html

Author: D’Arcy Niland
Title: Dead Men Running
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton, Sydney, 1969, First edition hbk., 350 pages
ISBN: None
Source: Personal copy, an OpShop find that is now worth much more than I paid for it, if AbeBooks is anything to go by.  There was a copy at Kay Craddocks for $40AUD on the day I looked.


Responses

  1. Australians often speak as though the Irish and the English are one people, when one colonized the other for hundreds of years, were forced out, leaving a mess that is yet to be resolved. Even so, I hadn’t thought much about Irish Australian support for the 1916 Uprising, except in terms of the anti conscription movement. Ive read some Niland, though not this one, and it’s clear he was proud of his Irish heritage.

    Like

    • It was fascinating, especially since in this setting, the town of Hope, the Irish were not underdogs in the town, Walsh in particular as a major employer holding political power and wealth as well..
      Now, I’ve just checked my morning email to discover that *snap!* you have reviewed exactly the same book as the one I’ve just finished last night. I’m not even going to open it until I’ve written mine!

      Like

  2. I have read so much about Niland, but not enough OF him. I have a CD of Aussie short stories that included his The parachutist, but the sound level was so low we couldn’t hear it properly in the car over the car noise. Bizarre. What I heard was great, so I need to find it and read it! It’s not in any of the Aus anthologies I have which has been disappointing!

    Like

    • Me too, *chuckle* a rare example of me discovering a male writer because of his wife’s books!

      Liked by 1 person


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