(Update: Just added a review of Raymond’s Dead Man Upright.)
“I put down the book stunned. I was sitting outside and, suddenly, quite ordinary traffic along Camp Bowie Boulevard seemed fraught with meaning. Streetlamps came on, dim and trembling in early twilight. I realized that this novel on the bistro table…had carved its way into me the way relentless pain etches itself indelibly upon the body..Five or six times in a life you come across a book that sends electric shocks skittering and scorching through the whole of you and radically alters the way in which you perceive the world.” – James Sallis, about I Was Dora Suarez
The first four Factory novels by Derek Raymond–He Died with His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home on Leave, How the Dead Live, and I Was Dora Suarez–have long been hailed as classics of noir mystery, with the new Serpent’s Tail editions featuring introductions by the likes of Will Self and James Sallis. Reviewers often reference the seeming contradictions of the series, for example the Daily Telegraph‘s observation that the novels contain “a bizarre mix of Chandleresque elegance…and naked brutality.” But life gives us order and elegance in equal measure with betrayal and brutality. Some of us are lucky enough to just experience the order, but Raymond knew that most of us experience some form of disorder or upheaval during our lives, and the most extreme version of this situation exists in the form of murder and murder investigations.
In the Factory series, the nameless narrator works as a detective in the Department of Unexplained Deaths. He often clashes with his superior, Bowman, and has turned down promotion at every turn. His wife is in a lunatic asylum and is responsible for the central tragedy of the detective’s life–as is an earlier relationship with a woman who will always retain a gravitational pull on his heart but who can never be brought back to him. He has a sister he wishes he were closer to, but otherwise, at the time of the cases related in the novels, the detective is utterly alone.
This isolation is key to understanding the inner psychology of the Factory novels. The detective literally lives through his work, and feels most fully engaged and connected to the world when he can inhabit the lives of the victims. Although the detective alludes to other cases, ones not related in the novels, the reader has the sense that he wasn’t as invested in those victims. He can recite the details, but there’s no emotional life to them.
But the cases in front of him–they’re all about an inner life, of bringing back the dead. In each case, to greater and lesser extents, the detective reanimates the victims, attempts to identify with them, attempts to honor them, to memorialize them through his efforts. In How the Dead Live, the detective has empathy for a doctor trying, in essence, to do the same thing in a more literal sense.
It takes love to bugger up a life and smash it to pieces, yes, it takes love in its stranger forms to do it, good and evil being so hopelessly mixed up in all of us…So, suddenly, it was all over, and I understood yet again how everything is far more complex and serious than we suppose, as though I had ever doubted it…”You understand how passion changes us back again into what we once were, must have been.” [he said] I told him I understood, even though I wondered if I did. Perhaps the only true crime is knowing what understanding means, so that as you live for the other, you also die for him.
It’s not always clear what came first: the dissolution of the detective’s life or his empathy for the victims he encounters in his job. Is the empathy fully replacing what he’s lost in his personal life, or did, to some extent, his obsession with the dead push out his ability to understand and appreciate the living? Perhaps the detective’s own secret guilt provides the key for why, in He Died with His Eyes Open, the detective identifies so fully with Charles Staniland, an alcoholic whose diaries reveal to the the detective that here was a man in existential crisis–a man of genuine passion, feeling, and empathy whose quest for experience, and for finding meaning in life, robbed him of his family and put him into a downward spiral with a woman he was obsessed with but who wasn’t good for him.
Staniland’s question was the question I had once read on a country gravestone erected to a child of six: “Since I was so early done for, I wonder what I was begun for.” Though Staniland had died at the age of fifty-one, he still had the innocence of a child of six. The naive courage, too–the desire to understand everything, whatever the cost…This fragile sweetness at the core of people–if we allowed that to be kicked, smashed and splintered, then we had no society at all of the kind I felt I had to uphold. I had committed my own sins against it, out of transcient weakness. But I hadn’t deliberately murdered it for its pitiful membrane of a little borrowed money, its short-lived protective shell–and that was why, as I drank some more beer…I knew I had to nail the killers.
He Died with His Eyes Open is the first Factory novel, and perhaps the finest. Certainly, it is the most perfect of the books in intent and execution. In it, the reader finds the purest distillation of those elements that make the series so compelling: a satisfying murder mystery coupled with an extraordinary eye for the details of lower-class and villainous London, an enervating and sad personal life for the narrator, a great ear for (often darkly funny) dialogue, and a victim in the case whose life could itself have made for a great novel.
Of all of these elements, the genius for describing people and places seems the most important. It’s this ability on Raymond’s part that makes the novel gritty–and gritty plays perfectly against the existential angst of both the detective and Charles Staniland. The shabby, decaying quality of life recalls the best scenes in the original version of the cult classic movie Get Carter. These details also work to make bearable the pervading sadness in the series, with the detective meeting any number of what you might call “colorful” characters in any number of authentically seedy places.
Put another way, it’s as if someone took the characters from Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, or the world-worn detective from any of a number of European mystery series in which the anonymity of the setting provides a kind of luminous quality…and dragged them through the dirt, shoved their noses in the grime, made them look at it all from ground level, even to the point of the obscenity of staring directly at, for example, an arm hacked at by an ax. Here’s a good general example from How the Dead Live:
What maddened me sometimes with my work at A14 was that I could not get any justice for these people until they were dead. These university drop-outs, these mad barefoot beauties that had been turned away from home who staggered down the streets with plastic bags filled with old newspapers against the cold–wrongo’s, drugo’s, folk of every age, colour, and past, they all had that despair in common that made them gabble out their raging dreams in any shelter they could find. They screamed at each other in Battersea, moaned over their empty cider bottles in Vauxhall, not having the loot for a night in Rowton House, their faces the colour of rotten stucco under the glare of the white lights at Waterloo Bridge and wreathed in the diesel fumes of the forty-ton fruit trucks that pounded up from Kent to Nine Elms all night long. In the days you could see them, white, faded and stained after such nights in winter; I saw them at the morning round-up at the Factory, waiting in various moods to be taken for sentencing at Great Marlboro Street–the thin, crazy faces, strange noses, eyes, hands rendered noble by madness and hunger, the rusty punctures in their arms, their whiplash tongues, and then, later, the flat, sullen grief of their meaningless statements to the magistrate.
There’s a hyper-real aspect to such descriptions that wouldn’t be out of place in M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels. It provides a solid, roughly beautiful, context for the grimness of Raymond’s plots. So, too, does the way he depicts violence, as in this scene from I Was Dora Suarez:
Roatta immediately screamed Wait Wait! but his eyes were brighter than he was, and knew better. They had stopped moving before he did, because they could see there was nothing more profitable for them to look at, so instead they turned into a pair of dark, oily stones fixed on the last thing they would ever see–eternity … Read Morein the barrel of a pistol. His ears were also straining with the intensity of a concert pianist for the first minute action inside the weapon as the killer’s finger tightened, because they knew that was the last sound they would ever hear. So in his last seconds of life, each of them arranged for him by his senses, Roatta sat waiting for the gun to explode with the rapt attention of an opera goer during a performance of his favourite star, leaning further and further forward in his chair until his existence was filled by, narrowed down to, and finally became the gun…As age goes in the world Roatta was fifty; but as he detected the first, barely perceptible sound in the gun’s mechanism he was suddenly a hundred and fifty, then a thousand and fifty, and then two hundred thousand and fifty until, when the killer fired, Roatta’s face was bright yellow and he was a million years old, his face hardened in iron concentration before the bullet even struck.
Thus what might have seemed overly dramatic in the Factory novels becomes just part of the hardness of existence. For readers who wonder why some writers have to include not just the facsimile of life but the real piss-shit-sweat-cum of it in an often hopeless context…well, the Factory novels answer that question: because at the micro level, this is where we’re at sometimes as intelligent animals whose passions outweigh our intellects and whose finite lives cause a formless anxiety and pain by definition.
I Was Dora Suarez is perhaps the novel that least asks for our forgiveness on this score. In fact, it’s a novel that, in trying to get to the center of such questions, often jettisons the kinds of scenes and the kinds of responses we as readers expect from a “mystery” novel. For this reason, I can’t call Suarez a perfect novel–it veers into moments of the almost-sentimental, and it has nothing like a brilliant story arc as a mystery or noir. This makes it the most honest of the novels, however. It steadfastly refuses to give the reader the ability to escape the enervating horror and sadness evoked by the detective’s investigation. It steadfastly refuses to give up on the idea that our lives are melodramatic and filled with passionate last stands and reversals and irrational attachments and all of the other creations of our minds that attain a reality of the soul regardless of how they manifest in the physical world.
But to get to that place, to be allowed that kind of self indulgence, Raymond first offers the reader perhaps the finest opening thirty pages of any novel I have ever read. It’s a masterpiece of sustained narrative and tight, elliptical writing, as the detective recreates the murder scene from several perspectives, coming back again and again to the horrible details of Dora Suarez’s death–and each time giving us something new, something else we can’t escape. There are transitions to the past and back to the present within these passages that display a talent comparable to writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, and in Raymond’s deliberately brash way, every bit as careful and precise detail. The skill and discipline and nerve required to pull off this feat is comparable to the emotional resolve it took to write the novel in the first place. I wish I could quote the opening in full, because no excerpt or summary can really convey the effectiveness and verve of those thirty pages. Here’s an excerpt:
Her sprawling limbs admitted only one image. They were what they could only be–joints of chilling, upset meat–and her bloodstained grin, the fixed, yet slack absence of her dark eyes were the worst of all sentences, the one that condemned a killer by looking past him. Yes, something had gone wrong this time. Now the place chilled hiim; it had acquired an intensity of its own. Since he was in no way equipped to face the appalling result of his butchery, raging, he blamed the room. While he was out it, being sick, it must have found a subtle opportunity to plot against him, and that was why now the motionless air in there, the feeble electric light, had become thickened, slyly menacing him…He glanced into the mirror at which he had so lately smiled in triumph. He shouted: “I look pretty good!” and flexed his muscles, but any third person would have registered nothing more there but a bent and hollow shadow, a seamed, yellow face and eyes that would have made even a trained nurse turn away in horror.
But it’s not just the detective examining the scene from every angle, it’s also the killer defining the boundaries of his personal cage of ritual, rage, and insanity. The plot, too, circles in on itself, as the detective relates scene after scene of interrogating the same subjects over and over until they break–interspersed with recollections of Suarez also defining the limits of a cage caused by poverty and disease. Just as Standiland in He Died with His Eyes Open keeps trying to escape, and the doctor and wife in How the Dead Live.
The core of what the detective is really circling in Suarez, however, isn’t so much the murder as the fact that in encountering the victim he has, for once and for all, in the twilight of his career, utterly alone, found the love of his life, and she is already dead, and there’s nothing he can do about that. He can’t bring her back. He can’t do anything except find the killer, which in this context is an act of love. It’s an irrational, scary, sad, terrible thought that Raymond explores, and it hardly bears contemplating.
In a truly brave part of the novel, Raymond brings the reader yet again to the murder scene, this time not during the act but during the detective’s exploration of the apartment, and again he brings the reader something new, as this circling serves the purpose of charting the beginning of obsession, of the narrator’s obsession with the primary thing he knows about the woman he loves: her death. The passage is worth quoting at length.
Presently I got out my flashlight and shone it over her, because the place where she had collapsed and died between the beds was so dark, and the old white light-shade overhead, thick with dust, was wrongly placed to shed enough light on her. In the glare of the torchlight her indifferent eyes glittered coldly past me. On these eyes, the dust of our great capital was already beginning to settle. She was still a very beautiful girl for a few more hours yet as long as you looked at the untouched part of her, for she was only newly dead. Only her brow, drawn in the stiff frown of terror, spoiled her expression, and her lips were unnatural; they were slightly but slackly parted to show her teeth, as though she were finally bored with some argument…but the saddest thing to me, because it was totally incongruous, was the outflung gesture of her unhurt arm, which seemed to be waving to everyone in the world, telling them not to be afraid but follow her–and it was only when I touched her back and felt the arch of her spine impossibly bent against the side of the bed that I saw how, in her last abominable agony, the poor darling had wanted to try to stand up again to escape death for just one second more so that she could explain everything that she was so suddenly having to leave…A short way from her, three feet from the beds, stood a low table which had not been overturned in the struggle; on it lay a magazine open at a travel agent’s advertisement offering cut-price charter flights to Hawaii…It was then, and only then, that I understood what it really meant, the feeling of people’s rightful fury and despair, and it came together with my desire to bend over Suarez and whisper, “It’s all right, don’t worry, everything’ll be all right, I’m here now, it’ll be all right 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 now the hair was rank, matted with blood, stiff and cold.
If love is a form of madness, then the detective has one of the severest manifestations: love at first sight, in the most perverse setting possible. As once the murderer kneeled over Suarez, now the detective does as well, and if his aims are 360-degrees apart from the murderer’s, then still it means he stands back-to-back with him. It’s a scene of the alien, and a scene of deep characterization, and it allies our sympathies with those of derangement.
Afterthis scene, Raymond opens up Suarez’s character, and thus the detective’s attachment to her, through the use of Suarez’s personal diary. A variation of this technique occurs in three of the four novels, absent only from The Devil’s Home of Leave (which, perhaps not coincidentally, is my least favorite of the Factory novels).
Raymond’s excerpts from Suarez’s diary work well enough, but they don’t have the same resonance as those from Standiland in He Died with His Eyes Open. For some reason, I didn’t have the sense that a particular excerpt came from some longer entry. Indeed, in some cases, Suarez’s excerpts seem intended simply to create sympathy in the reader. This is a difficult thing to ascertain, though, especially when you deal with individual people rather than types, with specifics rather than generalities. And Raymond also saves Suarez from the maudlin by withholding detail, too. “Don’t you remember how you used to invite me in to the back of the shop for tea? Don’t you remember how you said to me: ‘Courage, girl,” Suarez writes. “She knew I had terrible problems at home; she was one of the few people I told. ‘Have you ever known love?’ I asked her once, ‘because I never have, not yet.’ ‘Only once,’ you said, turning away. I don’t now why, but that was the moment when I thought to myself: ‘Only rotten things will happen to me.’”
Self-pitying, perhaps, but Suarez has AIDS and thus can be forgiven. Also, the reader never receives the specifics of those terrible problems at home that would, ironically, render Suarez banal by their inclusion. Raymond allows the character to hold onto those details as truly personal–or, rather, the detective protects Suarez by, for the most part, not entering them into his account.
More effective by far are entries by Suarez detailing her friendship with her landlady, Betty Carstairs. It’s in that relationship–in which Raymond is able to imagine a closeness between two women that requires no controlling male influence or aegis–that Suarez truly comes alive as a person.
After about an hour, [Betty] started asking me about myself, something I usually don’t like, only she didn’t do it in a stupid, pressing way, but mixed up with stories of her own past, taking my hand and stroking it absently while she talked. She spoke softly, in a low Highland voice that reminded me of fine rain; and later she brought some whisky and a plate of cakes to make it a social occasion. She had a quarter glass herself, and before she went to bed in the kitchen under the window sang snatches of Highland songs in Gaelic as though she had forgotten I was there.
The detective seems to acknowledge this bond in how he also provides the dignity of the specific to Carstairs in relating details of her life and death. Carstairs was important to Suarez, so she’s important to the detective. Standiland’s journal entries by contrast have the luxury of being by a writer, and thus, even when recalling dreams, fall more naturally into the form of anecdote and story.
I dreamed I was walking through the door of a cathedral. Someone I couldn’t distinguish warned me: “Don’t go in there, it’s haunted.” However, I went straight in and glided up the nave to the altar. The roof of the building was too high to see; the quoins were lost in a dark fog through which the votive lamps glowed orange. The only light came through the diamond-shaped clear panes in the windows; it was faint and cold. This neglected mass was attached to a sprawl of vaulted ruins; I had been in them all night; I had wandered through them for centuries. They had once been my home; burned-out rafters jutted like human ribs above empty, freezing galleries, and great doors gave onto suites soaked by pitiless rain.
Standiland’s purpose, too, is getting at the heart of the tragedy of his jettisoning superficial happiness for a fool’s chance at some greater truth. He’s in all ways a “beautiful loser” who’s never going to get back to the right side of anything. But he keeps trying, just like Dora Suarez keeps trying–and as the doctor in How the Dead Live keeps trying.
In How the Dead Live, the confessionals take the form of tape-recorded conversations between the doctor and his sick wife. It’s part of their ritual for staving off death, here manifesting in a literal rather than figurative form–their hubris leading to tragedy. The effect, then, is much different than in the other two novels that use this technique. The detective ghosts their voices into the narrative in the appropriate places, the reader at first wondering how the detective can possibly have eavesdropped on such intimate discussions. At times, they even seem to be echoing the detective’s very thoughts. At other times, the transcripts document a descent into madness–yet another decaying orbit entered into through love-induced insanity. If so, Raymond through the detective tells us madness is preferable to sanity at times; some forms of madness are more lucid, more real, than the alternative.
Part of the madness that informs all four novels also involves how the detective puts himself in harm’s way during the climax. It’s not required by the plots, but by the detective’s very nature. As he confronts the absolute darkness of the soul, he must confront the eventuality of his own negation, and in regaining dignity for the victims, he must make himself a victim–in a sense relive what they could not survive. Each time, then, he offers himself up to death, and it’s often the sheer verve of this act–the fact he doesn’t care if he lives or dies–that saves him…because the killer lacks that particular brand of insanity (or bravery, depending on your perspective) and can neither understand nor replicate it. In a very real way, the killers are confused by the detective’s actions, because they see in the detective a servant of order, when he is actually no such animal.
In conversation with another officer in I Was Dora Suarez, the concept of objectivity comes up: “It seems to me that the worst of a serious police enquiry–by which I mean enquiry into a murder–is that too often the investigating officer, and he can be the best you like, can’t stop unconsciously thinking about how he is getting on with his enquiry in relation to his superiors–he will always tend to commit the error of thinking of himself. The result of this is that it blinds the officer to the dead person, and since he is generally unaware that he is committing it, it is a very hard fault for that officer to correct.”
For the nameless detective, the fault is caring too much, and he’ll never be cured of it except by death. He’ll anger, even enrage, his superiors at every turn if it means he can get to some truth about the victims and their killers. He’ll tempt death because, quite simply, there’s nothing else in the world that engages his passion or his humanity. It may be a form of madness, it may mean that he’s past redemption, that he’s a creature imbued with life only through the lives of others, and that, in a sense, he’s avoiding engagement with the world by not allowing the living to impact upon him. But in a world we create in part with our memories and our passions, it’s a form of madness that might not be any worse than any other.
After I Was Dora Suarez, Raymond didn’t write another novel for quite some time. It’s easy to see why. Truly great writers live inside their narrator’s heads, and while working on Suarez, Raymond had to inhabit a place that must have been devastating. Words on a page are at one remove from the true reality of any novel–a barrier of translation that the reader has, protecting him or her from the storm of rage or grief encountered there. But the writer has no such barrier, nor even the ability to put down the book, because the story is in your head, even the deleted scenes. In the theater of the mind, there’s a resonance and immediacy that can drain you, burn you out, even, potentially, destroy your life if you dig too deep.
I can’t tell you that reading Derek Raymond is uplifting or joyful, but I can tell you that it’s a hard-won victory to come out the other side, and that along the way you’ll experience extremes of horror and strange beauty, of humanity and passion, that are often revelatory. Raymond’s not a perfect novelist, but I’m not sure I want perfect in the context of his Factory novels. I’ll “settle” for honest and brave.