What shall we be,
When we aren’t what we are?
—He Died with His Eyes Open
Minimalism in fiction is rarely conjoined with outbursts of passionate lyricism, and still more rarely do novels about crime and detectives carry out a philosophical quest. Derek Raymond’s much-admired “Factory” novels are bold and intriguing hybrids: as with the two novels under review (first and fourth in the series of five all now published by Melville House), they are idiosyncratic police procedurals narrated by an unnamed Detective Sergeant of the London Metropolitan Police who so identifies with the victims of his investigations that he becomes involved in their (imagined) lives and is drawn, often at great risk to himself, into their (imagined) suffering.
Raymond’s milieu is the chill of Thatcher-era London, and his atmosphere is an unrelenting existentialist noir—as if the most brutal of crime fictions had been recast by Sartre, Camus, or Ionesco while retaining something of the intimate wise-guy tone of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Sentences in the Factory novels are likely to be short, blunt, fevered: “Every day you amass knowledge in a frantic race against death that death must win.”
The Detective Sergeant is also a sort of novelist, or poet, obsessed with his fictitious characters and with his own ever-shifting relationship to them as if, as he learns astonishing truths about them, they are helping to create him.Rare for a veteran police officer, especially one so difficult with his fellow officers, he’s susceptible to extremes of emotion, and vulnerable to the near-literal “absorption” of every hellish detail of a crime scene. He sends other police officers away—he insists upon being alone with the dead. In I Was Dora Suarez (1990), Raymond’s most excruciatingly horrific novel, we learn that, having been married to a psychopath-murderer, he credits his experience with having made him a skilled detective:
Now, having passed through what I was hard taught, I have for a long time made use of it in my work to judge and place the actions and motives of others and see how the catcher, to be a true arrow against assassins, must at some time in his own life have personally had to do with one.
(Note the curiously formal tone, as if the passage had been translated from a foreign, slightly archaic language.)
Still, we know very little about the man except that, in He Died with His Eyes Open (1984), the first of the series, the irascible and indomitable investigator is forty-one years old and lives alone in a “dreadful little bachelor’s flat” in Earlsfield, central London, on a “raw scar” of a block called Acacia Circus. He’d once been married, and is subject to sudden memories of his daughter, whom the reader infers he hasn’t seen in some time. (In I Was Dora Suarez, the fourth novel in the series, we learn that the daughter’s name was Dahlia; his wife, Edie, killed the nine-year-old girl and has been institutionalized since then.) As a police officer the Detective Sergeant is grimly obsessive, “obstinate,” sarcastic, and unpredictable; he’s both highly professional and unprofessional when it suits him, beating up an insolent skinhead, or breaking into a suspect’s residence without a warrant; provoked, he has even attacked one of his superior officers.
His commitment to solving murders is a commitment to avenging the dead, and leads him into reckless acts; the reader is startled to realize that this British police officer isn’t armed, yet places himself in positions of extreme danger, with the expectation that he can talk his way out of danger. (He can’t.) Formerly he’d been with the Vice Squad of the Metropolitan Police but now works in the Department of Unexplained Deaths—“the most unpopular and shunned branch,” where low-ranking police officers labor on “obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did,” but where, nonetheless, “no murder is casual to us.” Career advancement lies elsewhere, in the classier Criminal Investigation Department (CID) or Special Intelligence Branch (SIB), where victims aren’t near-anonymous welfare recipients found beaten to death and tossed like trash into the shrubbery in front of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five, their “eyes open.”
The influence of Raymond Chandler is considerable in Derek Raymond, notably in the very surname “Raymond” and the Chandleresque drollery of his language. “Derek Raymond” is in fact the pseudonym of the British writer Robert “Robin” Cook (1931–1993), who changed his name in the early 1980s to distinguish himself from the best-selling American writer Robin Cook. The character of the unnamed detective in his work conforms almost entirely to the knightly ideals as set forth in Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” first published in 1944 in The Atlantic:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.
The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor…. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man….
The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth….
Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, the quintessential private investigator wise guy (“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window”), Derek Raymond’s detective has a way with words: a psychopathic serial killer is “a wild card hidden in the social pack,” an elderly murder victim has the “smile of a lunatic criticising bad theatre,” a murderer’s lips “bent sharply downwards in the shape of a sickle.” At times, Raymond’s language slides into a bizarre surrealism: we see a “pretty little girl with murderer’s ears”—a woman with “legs like crumpled car bumpers and…a brightly poisoned hat.” At other times, he achieves a startling frankness: “Do you know I cry in my sleep? Do you think a man can’t cry in his sleep?” Political and moral corruption are ubiquitous in Chandler’s quasi-glamorous Los Angeles of the 1940s, but something far deeper than corruption, a kind of mad biological rot, pervades this Thatcher-era London, erupting in crazed killings far beyond anything the temperamentally puritanical Raymond Chandler would have wished to dramatize in prose.
“Most people live with their eyes shut, but I mean to die with my eyes open”—this statement by one of the victims the detective investigates is surely meant to reflect his attitude as well. As in a novel of philosophical investigation, like Sartre’s Nausea, the meaning of existence is scrutinized through such concepts as paradox, mystery, and existential horror. The detective is a practiced interrogator in the “Factory”—so named “because it has a bad reputation for doing suspects over in the interrogation rooms”; to his fellow cops he’s an “insolent bastard” whom they grudgingly admire, and whom they bring back to the department after he’s been fired, to take over the most difficult murder cases. Here is the existential pilgrim as detective, the object of his inquiry nothing less than the meaning of life itself; but the pilgrim is also an avenging angel.
Both He Died with His Eyes Open and I Was Dora Suarez are composed of alternating voices: that of the detective, and that of the murder victim. The first voice is laconic and brusque, the second “poetic,” as if we were encountering two sides of a divided self. He Died with His Eyes Open is the more self-consciously lyrical novel, containing excerpts from the taped journal of the victim Charles Locksley Alwin Staniland, aged fifty-one, whose brutal fate—he was found badly battered—seems at odds with the complexity of his character, and whose memories (chronic alcoholism, failed marriages, a “lost” daughter, manual labor in rural Italy, an aborted writing career) closely parallel those of Robin Cook’s own life. Far from being a nonentity, as he’d initially appeared, Staniland strikes the detective as “too sane”—“intelligent and direct.”
After listening to the murdered Staniland’s taped voice over a period of days, as Staniland speaks eloquently of philosophical riddles as well as painfully intimate matters, the detective broods: “Where I identified with Staniland, what I had inherited from him, was the question why.” Staniland is revealed as someone who is both debased and elevated; he is held in contempt as an impotent drunk by the busty femme fatale Barbara Spark with whom he’d become riskily involved, yet admired by a BBC producer for whom he’d written brilliant but unproduceable TV scripts—“A lovely man.” His former wife Margo is devastated by his death, though their marriage had been sabotaged by Staniland’s alcoholism and his inability to support his family:
I loved him…. The trouble with Charles was that he shot past everyone; he went like a meteor…. It’s like the tragedy of the whole world in a little glass…. Great things are all smashed to pulp, and none of us who are left have the spirit to carry on.
Staniland’s tapes appear to be passages in a journal (one might speculate that the journal is Robin Cook’s), interludes in a tangled life illuminated by sudden insights and epiphanies. The life, revealed piecemeal on the cassettes, as the detective pursues his investigation among a London netherworld of pubs, drinkers, petty crooks, and probable psychopaths, is a chaotic mixture of the profane, the pitiful, the bankrupt, the aesthetic, the romantic, and the philosophical; unrelentingly self-critical, Staniland concludes that he is a sort of “vomitorium”—someone who draws out the very worst, the moral vomit, of others.
This curious insight, in itself repugnant, is a theme in Derek Raymond’s “black” fiction: that murder victims are in some way complicit with their killers, deserving of punishment, like Staniland and the hapless young Dora Suarez. One of the most arresting passages in He Died with His Eyes Open is a description of pig slaughter on a French farm, a prose poem that, as the reader sees in retrospect, ironically mimics Staniland’s brutal murder to come. Another interlude, hallucinatory in the precision of its images, like something by Baudelaire or Rimbaud, describes the death-by-fire of German pilots trapped in a plane that has crashed in the English countryside:
I went back and snatched a piece of tailplane that had been blown off and kept it for a souvenir. It was exciting, a really adventurous day. But the strange part was that, over the years, the passing of time altered the meaning of those two figures in their leather helmets, relaxed yet intent, shimmering in the fumes—time placed a different and deeper meaning on the experience.
Ever more deeply involved with the deceased man, the detective “begins to suffer from the delusion…that he is alive.” He feels himself “twisted into a new, more complex shape.” In the novel’s least probable plot turn, the detective’s immersion in Staniland leads him to fall in love—in a manner of speaking—with Staniland’s busty blond femme fatale, a sexually frigid woman who has used her sexuality to make her way in a man’s world, carelessly and cruelly: “I don’t like things that go on too long.” We learn that Barbara Spark with her “big shoulders, heavy arms” has herself been brutalized and wounded; as a girl she’d been incarcerated on a charge of having committed “grievous bodily harm” for having killed an assailant. Despite his shrewdness in recognizing murderers, and Staniland’s warning about Barbara—“a frigid iceberg with gross psychic problems and the mind of a petty criminal”—the detective doesn’t realize how irremediably scarred the woman is, how she has internalized extremes of sadomasochistic violence, and how naive he has been to imagine that he could subdue her and her partner-in-crime without the assistance of fellow police officers.