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The Visionary Detective

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.

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Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis
Derek Raymond, Paris, 1990

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.

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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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