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.

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…

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