"I am a minor figure for whom no God waits..."
– Derek Raymond's Detective Sergeant in How the Dead Live
THOUGH MOSTLY UNKNOWN IN THE STATES outside of an obsessive cult following, the late British crime novelist Derek Raymond's work is widely read and appreciated around the world — and especially in France, where the author lived for many years. In the U.K., this "Godfather of British Noir" has had a profound influence on today's vanguard of dark crime; David Peace, Ian Rankin, Ken Bruen, Cathi Unsworth, and many others have expressed their debt to him and his controversial "Factory" novels, which have just been reissued in the United States by Melville House. The first four books — He Died with His Eyes Open (1984), The Devil's Home on Leave (1985), How the Dead Live (1986), and his masterpiece, I Was Dora Suarez (1990) — appeared last fall, and this month sees the first U.S. publication of the fifth and final book, Dead Man Upright (1993). Notorious for their graphic depictions of violent crime, Raymond's Factory novels are often brutal and uncompromising, yet they contain extraordinary empathy and compassion. These remarkable books defy easy classification, and they are long overdue for discovery by American readers.
Raymond was born Robert William Arthur "Robin" Cook in 1931. Although he came from a wealthy London family, he quickly abandoned a life of privilege for one of adventure and crime. The young Cook walked away from Eton, preferring to consort with the villains and con men whose lives would later provide material for his work. Cook's wanderings took him to America, where he worked as a waiter, and to Spain, where he was thrown in prison for publicly mocking Franco. Back in Britain, he fronted bogus companies for several high-profile East End gangsters. (Cook's criminal exploits are recounted in detail in his 1992 memoir, The Hidden Files, which is itself deserving of a reissue.) Cook began his literary career by writing pornography, but soon turned his natural talent to a succession of darkly comic novels. The Crust on Its Uppers (1962), his first published work, is a scathing satire on Britain's class system. Like Cook, the novel's anonymous narrator (who writes from prison) has forsaken his posh background and embraced a life of crime. Involved in various petty schemes, from counterfeiting to fencing stolen goods, our man presents a colorful and vivid tale of class relations and underworld adventure in swingin'-sixties London. The narrative is told in a rich and sometimes challenging patois, with heavy Cockney rhyming slang, and features a glossary at the back. The book, which enjoyed modest success, was followed by several others in the same vein, including Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip (1969), Private Parts in Public Places (1969), and The Tenants of Dirt Street (1972).
By the early 1970s, Cook's literary career had stalled, but his criminal activities had attracted notice, making it impossible for him to remain safely in the U.K. He slipped off the grid to France, where he spent much of the next decade doing manual labor on a vineyard. After years away from writing, Cook began to work on an entirely new kind of novel, one that would focus more on the victims o...read more