APRIL 18, 2012
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 of violent crime than on its perpetrators. He Died with His Eyes Open (1984), the first in his Factory series, would exemplify what the author termed the “black novel” in his memoir:
The black novel is mankind driven to madness in a bar or in the dark; it describes men and women whom circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed. It deals with the question of turning a small frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle — the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfulfillable, and where defeat is certain.
Cook’s new work owed more to American hardboiled fiction and to the social realism of WWII-era British writers Patrick Hamilton and Gerald Kersh than it did to the popular U.K. crime writers of the day. As he prepared to shop the manuscript around to publishers, he had to contend with an annoying logistical problem: during his time away from writing, an American novelist named Robin Cook had published a series of bestselling medical mysteries, including the hit Coma (1977), which had been adapted for the screen. Combining the names of two deceased friends, Cook came up with the pseudonym “Derek Raymond.”
He Died with His Eyes Open introduces readers to the series’ protagonist, an unnamed Detective Sergeant working for A14 — the Unsolved Deaths division — out of the Police Headquarters (dubbed “The Factory” by criminals and police alike) on Poland Street. He works exclusively on the murders of the marginalized: prostitutes, junkies, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed. His cases rarely get more than a line or two in the local linens, if that, and they certainly don’t have the glamour of the investigations worked by Serious Crimes, which is led by the detective’s nemesis, Charlie Bowman. To Bowman, the Detective Sergeant is a loser, but also an enigma; Bowman recognizes his skills, but can’t comprehend why he isn’t interested in getting out of A14 into a more prestigious post:
“Anyway,” Bowman added, “if you will stay a sergeant you’ll always get the shitty end of the stick.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I think that’s the end where the truth is.” (The Devil’s Home on Leave)
We soon learn why Raymond’s protagonist is not interested in promotion, money, or notoriety: The Detective Sergeant is haunted by the death of his 9-year-old daughter, Dahlia, who was killed by his ex-wife, Edie. His earlier career ambitions had blinded him to the warning signs that his wife was becoming unhinged, and he feels intense guilt for Dahlia’s death. Raymond strips his protagonist of his name in a symbolic gesture of alliance with those who have been dehumanized by poverty, oppression, and violent crime. As a means of atonement, he now pursues his cases with a monomaniacal intensity:
I would give my life to have my little girl back again, but all I can do in the anticlimax that life is without her is to do what I believe to be right in the face of evil. (The Devil’s Home on Leave)
We first meet the Detective Sergeant on a vacant lot, examining the body of a man who has been beaten to death. The dead man’s eyes stare up into the void as rain pours down on him and the assembled police officers. To all appearances, the deceased is just another transient alcoholic, not the kind of victim to whom the police devote much energy or time. But, as Raymond’s Detective Sergeant quickly learns, the victim, Charles Staniland, was anything but ordinary. During the course of the investigation, we discover that he was a failed writer who’d become immobilized by personal tragedy and whose life had slipped into a slow, steady decline. (The details of Staniland’s life, incidentally, bear more than a passing resemblance to Cook’s own.)
The Detective Sergeant finds a series of cassette tapes among Staniland’s possessions — his own recorded diary of the months leading up to his demise. As he listens to the tapes, he feels a profound connection with the troubled man, whose regret and existential anguish follow not just for his own failings, but for the injustice he sees everywhere around him. We learn about Staniland’s ruined marriage and broken relationship with his 10-year-old daughter, as well as about his exile in France. There’s also his obsession with a cold, abusive woman who exploits his weakness and provides him with the humiliation he seems to require. In a plot twist that could have emerged from the psyche of James Ellroy, the Detective Sergeant himself comes under this succubus’s power during the course of his investigation. As the tapes come to an end just before Staniland’s murder, it becomes evident that he had a clear understanding of his fate, and was unable (or unwilling) to stop it. Intimate dispatches, or “hidden files,” like Staniland’s tapes occur time and again in the Factory novels, restoring the voices of those who had been prematurely silenced.
Although they aren’t police procedurals, the Factory novels contain a good deal of solid policing, and while concepts like justice and mercy may seem quaint to the Detective Sergeant’s colleagues, they motivate his every action, and make him a superlative investigator:
I seldom agree with my colleagues because too often their reasoning is based on the results they expect, and as such is generally ill-founded. (The Devil’s Home on Leave)
The second in the Factory series, The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), begins with the discovery of a body whose parts have been carefully severed and neatly distributed between five plastic bags. The murder, as gruesome as it is, does not seem to be the act of a crazed psychopath, but rather the cold and clinically detached work of a professional killer keen on leaving as little identifying evidence as possible. To that end, the teeth have been removed, the blood drained, and the skin boiled. The victim, however, is a “grass” (Brit slang for “snitch”), and so his death is relegated to A14. The Detective Sergeant works the case tirelessly, and his investigation leads to a ruthless assassin named Billy McGruder, whose work he knows well, and the London mobster Pat Hawes, who is due to be released from prison. As the Detective pursues the two criminals, he discovers a trail of corruption and collusion that reaches the upper echelons of British government.
Raymond never mentions Margaret Thatcher by name, but her shadow hangs heavily over the Factory novels, which roughly cover the period of 1984-1992, when the systematic dismantling of social relief programs and the repression of organized labor hit Britain’s working poor hard, resulting in the same spike in crime seen in Reagan’s America. In the U.S., the gradual squeezing of the middle class had already been under way for years. In Britain, the upper and middle classes were still unassailable, but members of the growing underclass had about as much chance of finding work as they did of meeting the queen. In an interview with British journalist Paul Duncan conducted in 1993, Raymond talked about his fascination with crime and its social causes:
Most writers write about the haves and the have-nots, and the reasons for it. I think Dickens would find 1993 Britain a very familiar place, I should think. Thanks to this government, we’re leaving the 1990s and going back to the 1820s. We’ll be going back to the 1770s soon if we carry on with this regressive government … If you’re going to cram people in like rats, they’re going to act like them.
Raymond’s work is haunted by a profound sense of loss, which seems to affect not only his characters individually but the country of Britain as a whole. Poverty and dissolution have stripped away the people’s dignity and self-respect. The Detective Sergeant often reflects back on the World War II generation, who faced great adversity and loss together. His long dead father represents this disappearing spirit of everyday heroism and social responsibility:
There used to be dignity in life; I used to see it all round me when I was young. But now it’s gone. People no longer care about each other the way they used to — not the way my old man used to tell me life was when he worked in the fire service during the war and the bombing. Then, people who didn’t even know each other would go down into the flattened buildings after a raid and shovel to get at the people buried down there as if the victims were their brothers. Even after the war there was still some trust left; it ran on nearly into the Sixties. But now it’s all sorry, squire, don’t want to know. (The Devil’s Home on Leave)
As the Factory series continues with How the Dead Live (1986), the Detective Sergeant increasingly feels the weight of the innocent who died in vain pressing upon him. They visit him in dreams, imploring him for justice. This time out, he is summoned out to Thornhill for an odd case involving the disappearance of a young woman named Marianne Marday. Much loved in the community, Mrs. Marday had given concerts for her neighbors and welcomed everyone into her home. Over time, however, the townspeople watched her go into a strange decline, appearing only briefly in public wearing a veil, and then vanish entirely. The missing woman’s husband is an eccentric old doctor who has sequestered himself in the couple’s dilapidated 80-room estate. Dr. Marday’s story that his ailing wife has returned to her native France hasn’t convinced the locals, who suspect foul play. The Detective Sergeant sets up shop in the small community and pursues the matter alone, as always. To say that what he finds is shocking would be an understatement, but not in the way that the crime fiction reader might anticipate. Poignant and insightful, How the Dead Live is one of Raymond’s finest efforts. Toward the end of the book, the Detective Sergeant strikes an officer who was interfering with his investigation. The altercation ultimately leads to his termination from the police force, but, as we soon see, it doesn’t last long.
Critics often focus on the graphic depiction of violence in Raymond’s work, inevitably citing I Was Dora Suarez (1990), the fourth and finest of the Factory series. The book’s opening passage, one of the most shocking in literature, is told from a killer’s perspective as he butchers two women. His main victim is a pretty young prostitute named Dora Suarez. Suarez’s elderly landlady, Betty Carstairs, simply gets in the way. We are spared none of the grisly details (the famous story goes that an editor vomited over the manuscript while reading the first few pages). What is most chilling is the detached, matter-of-fact manner in which the killer goes about his business.
A year after getting canned, Raymond’s Detective Sergeant is called back to duty to lead the investigation, and we are immediately taken back to the murder scene to examine the aftermath through his eyes. By forcing us to revisit the crime scene, Raymond confronts us with the full obscenity of violent crime, and the Detective Sergeant’s brutal reality:
Everything he [the killer] had done resolved itself into abominable little details.
You’re looking at the truth that the British public never want to see in print. The public want just the grimy outline, not the intimate, revolting details.
These novels are certainly not classic “mysteries” in the English sense, with the upper-class amateur sleuth using his “powers of ratiocination” to crack the puzzle of the body in the drawing room and nab the butler or some other lower-class wrongdoer. No, these are not intended to be the weekend’s diversion for the upper classes. In Raymond’s world, murder is taken seriously. There is no looking away. By approaching it head-on, Raymond proposes, we are able to walk through it:
Strip horror; face it naked. Don’t hide or run, and then the good will come. Even if it has to go through hell to find you…
In I Was Dora Suarez, of course, the explicitness and intensity reaches a new level, even for Raymond. Indeed, the Detective Sergeant finds himself affected by Suarez’s murder in a way that he has never experienced. As he silently takes in the crime scene, he is overwhelmed by the degradation inflicted on the young woman. It takes the Detective a good while before he is able to look at Suarez’s face, and in an unforgettable moment of tenderness, he leans in and kisses the slain woman’s blood-matted hair.
Where others see just another dead prostitute, the Detective Sergeant recognizes the most important case of his career:
I see now, clearer than I have ever done, that my work is a matter not just of my personal honour, but of our national honour.
In another variation of the “hidden files,” he finds Dora Suarez’s diary. The pages tell the remarkable story of a woman abused and defiled by society since childhood, a survivor whose essential goodness remained intact despite the depravity of her surroundings. We soon learn that Suarez was dying of AIDS and planned to end her life. As the Detective Sergeant reads the diary, he begins to fall in love with Dora, and takes to addressing her directly:
Dora, I don’t know how far into the dark I shall have to go to find you, but try to help me reach you, help me to find you, don’t just slip away. Try your hardest to help me.”
… For I kissed your hair and I can’t understand why, but I am bound to you.
The Detective Sergeant learns that Suarez worked in a brothel above a mob-run nightclub. This brothel, however, featured a particularly vile form of gratification that was performed for a hefty sum for those already infected with the AIDS virus. Of course, the demand required a steady supply of willing participants — destitute prostitutes willing to do anything to survive, even if they didn’t know that this something would soon kill them. It was here that the detective surmises Ms. Suarez came into contact with her murderer, whom she initially pitied. Raymond’s descriptions of the psychopath are among the most vivid to appear anywhere in crime fiction:
His lips, grey and sharp, were bent sharply downwards in the shape of a sickle. His eyes compelled the other because they bore the stare of someone entirely lost on the earth, and he was the most hideous thing that you prayed you might never see.
[His eyes] … far from being attractive, as he was convinced they were, they struck others as eyes that had perished violently centuries ago, and there was also some form of lacquer over them that lent them the expressionless look that you see in the eyes of the dead.
The book’s title is the first entry in the victim’s diary; it is a sobering declaration of existence and a plea for remembrance by one who, like many of Raymond’s characters, never stood a chance. The circumstances of Dora’s life and her killer’s psychotic actions threaten to strip her of her one remaining possession — her identity:
Whatever she might have believed herself to be was exploded by the violence that had been done to her …
I Was Dora Suarez took Raymond to a place of darkness from which he struggled to emerge. As he writes in The Hidden Files, he began to understand the Detective Sergeant’s love for Dora in broader terms:
What is remarkable about I Was Dora Suarez has nothing to do with literature at all; what is remarkable about it is that in its own way and by its own route it struggles after the same message as Christ. I am not the kind of person that anyone would expect to say such a thing, for although I believe firmly in the invisible, I am not religious. But in writing the book I definitely underwent an experience that I can only describe as cathartic; the writing of Suarez, though plunging me into evil, became the cause of my seeking to purge what was evil in myself. It was only after I had finished the book that I realized this; I was far too deeply involved in the battle with evil that the book became to think any further than that at the time […] Suarez was my atonement for fifty years’ indifference to the miserable state of this world; it was a terrible journey through my own guilt, and through the guilt of others. (The Hidden Files)
As the Detective Sergeant says to a colleague before the climactic scene, “we save Suarez, somehow we save everybody.”
This month, Melville House will release the final Factory novel, Dead Man Upright. While the book lacks the power of its predecessors, it fails in interesting ways. Set in 1992, several years after the Suarez case, Dead Man Upright has the Detective Sergeant helping catch a serial killer named Ron Jidney, who’d been at large for years. As part of a new program of “serial killer profiling” based on the FBI’s methods, the Detective agrees to sit in on a psychiatrist’s lengthy interviews with Jidney.
In a telling reversal of Raymond’s previous books, in which the victims communicated with the Detective Sergeant through written or taped journals, Jidney sends along his own diary from prison, which he calls “Hell Opens Its Gates to the Public.” While the psychopath’s self-obsessed musings are fascinating at first, and obviously instructive in the interests of profiling, they become tiresome, and they underscore Raymond’s contention that “bores and killers are much the same.” Ultimately, Dead Man Upright lacks the sustained intensity of the preceding books, because it loiters too long in the mind of an often uninteresting murderer. Yet it provides a valuable counterpoint to the other Factory novels, and fleshes out Raymond’s portrait of humanity on the margins.
Robin Cook would have been 81 years old this year, had his remarkably colorful life not ended in 1994. Thanks to this uniform set from Melville House, Raymond’s bleak reminders of the importance of human dignity and of our mutual responsibility are available once more, when we seem to need them most.