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The Visionary Detective

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I Was Dora Suarez is a yet more intensely imagined work of fiction, generally considered the “black” masterpiece of the Factory series, and not for the fainthearted. The opening scene is a tour de force of choreographed violence imagined by an unnamed narrator (who will be revealed as the Detective Sergeant, now forty-five years old), a reenactment of the killings by a sexual psychopath as he wields an ax against the gravely ill, thirty-year-old Dora Suarez, and stumbles on to kill the eighty-six-year-old woman with whom Dora Suarez has been living.

Even more than Staniland, the viciously mutilated Dora Suarez exerts a powerful posthumous spell upon the detective. He is stunned by the sight of her at the crime scene:

And yet I found, far from being afraid when I did look into her face, that I was in tears. The good side of it, except for one smear of blood down her cheek, was intact. The ax had struck her across, and then down the face, the bad side. Her eyes were not damaged; they were black, ironic and three-quarters open…. She was still a very beautiful girl for a few more hours yet….

The lovestruck detective

feels a desire to bend over Suarez and whisper, “It’s all right, darling, don’t worry, everything’ll be all right, I’m here now…”—and the feeling was so strong in me that I knelt and kissed her short black hair which still smelled of the apple-scented shampoo she had washed it with just last night; only the hair was rank, matted with blood, stiff and cold.

Reading Suarez’s diary, as he’d once listened avidly to Staniland’s cassettes, the detective acquires intimate information about the murder victim, who calls herself a “Spanish Jewess”; he learns that Suarez was mysteriously, terminally ill, and had in fact planned to kill herself on the very night of her murder:

Once I was Dora Suarez, but even before I die I am not her any more; I have just become something appalling. Looking at myself naked in the mirror, I see that I have lost the right to call myself a person; what’s left of me is barely human…. I accept that at thirty I am going to die.

Ghastly as the murder enactment has been at the opening of the novel, a subsequent scene in the police morgue in which the mutilated body is examined is yet more lurid, as it’s revealed that Dora Suarez was infected with AIDS, her lower body hideously deformed by Karposi’s sarcoma. Far from being repulsed by Suarez’s affliction, the detective feels more intensely his identification with her: “her death had affected me so deeply that by her defiled face I felt defiled myself.” In the interstices of a protracted and blackly comic interrogation in the Factory, in which petty-criminal witnesses are encouraged to provide information by being beaten by police, the detective becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the killer and avenging the young woman’s death. Was there ever a police officer so emotionally bound up with his work, so psychologically fraught?

Every death I have ever seen in my work…are all for me casualties on a single front…. For me the front is the street, and I am forced to see it every day.
I see it, eat it, sleep and dream the street, am the street. I groan in its violent dreams, see it under the rain and in the sun, the hurrying people on it, killers as well as victims, flying past absorbed as if they were praying. The way I am, I sense tears as well as hear them….
Where’s the justice in it? That’s what I want to know.

As in He Died with His Eyes Open, I Was Dora Suarez concludes with the identification of a particularly sick, sadomasochistic killer, himself afflicted with AIDS, for whom the detective expresses a perverse sympathy: “Pain is inflicted by those who have no idea what it means…because they inflict pain on themselves.” The novel ends in an outburst of retributive gunfire and the detective’s terse notation: “I felt nothing.” (Of this curious hybrid of a novel the author notes in his autobiography The Hidden Files (1992) that he was attempting here something of “the same message as Christ.” It 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.”)

Of literary genres, the mystery- detective novel is the most addictive, as it is the genre that dramatizes the obsessive, monomaniacal quest for the “solution” to a puzzle. Crime fiction is as likely to be addictive for the writer as for the reader, with the result that virtually all mystery writers are highly prolific. See, for instance, such practitioners as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Ed McBain, Michael Connelly, et al., and most notably the hyperprolific Georges Simenon with an estimated two hundred titles. When Edmund Wilson asked irritably, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” he was bringing to bear the expectations of serious literature in an examination of mystery novels by Christie, Stout, Dorothy Sayers, among others, and finding them wanting; particularly, Wilson objected to the formulaic nature of mystery plots, the flatness of character, the general contrivance and mediocrity of the writer’s vision and the banality of the “denouement.” (Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Wilson excluded from his censure, for their “wit and fairy-tale poetry” and for the originality of the character of the detective Holmes.) An additional damning point is that mystery fans don’t seem to read mystery novels very carefully; interest fades with the final chapter, and the reader-addict turns to the next mystery.

Wilson complained of a reading experience analogous to having to “unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails.” In his far more illuminating analytical and appreciative essay on the detective novel, “The Guilty Vicarage” (1948), W.H. Auden argues that the detective novel offers readers a kind of magic by which “grace” is restored to a social setting and guilt is dispelled; even as Auden identifies himself as a detective-novel addict, he admits that he forgets a mystery novel as soon as he finishes it, and has no interest in reading it again. Auden differentiates between the novel of detection and the novel that is “art”—the latter category including fiction by Raymond Chandler as well as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

With references to Christian tradition, Auden perceives in crime fiction the underlying archetype of sin, salvation, and redemption, of which the secular-minded Wilson seems oblivious. In crime fiction evil is isolated by being identified, pursued, brought under control, and rendered harmless; at least temporarily, evil is eradicated. As no religious ritual is absolute and for all time, so the eradication of evil is only temporary, and has to be repeated, and repeated. It’s the perennial cycle of crime/sin, investigation, revelation, and “justice” that provides the template for works of mystery/detection, from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: the restoration of “grace” in the social community, often at enormous cost to a sacrificial figure.

The detective is this figure, frequently an outlaw-savior who must commit crimes and suffer punishment in order to achieve justice. Or, like Sophocles’ Oedipus, he must identify himself as the loathed criminal, the violator of taboo; he must exorcise himself, to achieve a bitter and ironic justice. And often this is vigilante justice, as in much of contemporary crime fiction, for the law is notoriously compromised. The corruption of high police officials and courts is taken for granted in Raymond’s bleakly realist Factory novels as in Raymond Chandler’s more romantic LA noir novels. Virtually anyone who works in the public sector is synonymous with duplicity and graft while only the “private detective,” or the outlaw police detective, is left to pursue justice.

The allegiance of the crime novel isn’t to maintaining the stability of law, but achieving, if only piecemeal, and surreptitiously, something like the blessing of justice. Few detectives go so far as Raymond’s Detective Sergeant, who falls in love with murder victims because they have been wrongfully killed, and there is no one but the Detective Sergeant to avenge them. Edmund Wilson could not have dismissed Derek Raymond’s Factory novels as below the radar of serious literary consideration, and Auden would surely have been impressed with their stark originality, though Raymond’s vision is wholly secular and fatalist and there is little sense of redemption in these blood-drenched pages:

I said out into the night: “We’ll get our dignity back; whether alive or dead, we shall all be as we used to be.” I found I absolutely had to state those words out loud because, through the deaths of [the murder victims] I found myself suddenly in a state of great doubt, despair, and in a testing time, not only because of the way the two women had left us but because of the fury I felt on account of it. I found my own life set on the scales as though it were theirs…. I only know that [the murder victims] must, by our forces, be put to rest; because until that is done, the new future will never come, and so none of us can ever be at rest.

Here is the detective as sacrificial visionary. He has literally lost his own, personal life in the service of the impersonal quest for justice; this may seem to us, readers at a distance, a kind of madness. For certainly there is something deranged in so vast and so passionate a quest, in such debased circumstances—this faith in a “new future.” It isn’t a coincidence that Derek Raymond’s knightly detective is also, in temperament, an artist, a poet, and a philosopher for whom “words sometimes take the place of tears.”

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