Death at One's Elbow: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels
Raymond, who was born Robin Cook in 1931 to the family of a textile magnate, dropped out of Eton, worked at menial jobs and spent a lot of time carousing with what might be called "an undesirable element." He published his first novel, the wonderfully titled The Crust on Its Uppers, in 1962. The book, its latest edition helpfully annotated with a glossary of Cockney rhyming slang, evokes a time when the criminal worlds of London's East End mixed with the worlds of bohemia and celebrity. It would only be a few years after the book was published that the dapper gangster bosses of the East End, the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, would be photographed by David Bailey. (Raymond died in 1994.)
The Crust on Its Uppers belongs to the select group of novels that depict the varied circus of London life, books like Colin MacInnes's Absolute Beginners and Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (the story of Trinidadian immigrants, which can number among its descendants work by Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali). It's the Factory novels, though, that remain Raymond's strongest work. Each one follows a similar pattern: No Name is ordered to investigate a death that none of the careerists in the police force have time for. After receiving a phone call from the big boss, who is only ever identified as "the voice," cautioning him not to stir up trouble, No Name, motivated by a sense of urgency, a passion for justice and outrage at the abuses done to the powerless, proceeds to do just that.
Hard-boiled heroes are invariably loners. For No Name, loneliness is the personal hell of having a wife who has been institutionalized for murdering their daughter (perhaps the grimmest back story I've ever encountered for any hard-boiled detective). But that hell is also a result of the cursed role that Raymond has devised for him, turning him into something like a figure out of myth, eternally doomed to listen to voices speaking to him from beyond the grave.
And it's death to whom the victims in these books owe their voices. The alcoholic writer in He Died With His Eyes Open--having, like No Name, lost his wife and daughter--spends his days in a pub enduring the insults of its patrons, pines for the prostitute who spurns him and upon his demise leaves behind a series of tapes to which No Name listens obsessively. The AIDS-infected prostitute murdered in I Was Dora Suarez leaves a journal that No Name doesn't so much read as flagellate himself with. In How the Dead Live, No Name overhears taped conversations between a doctor gone mad with grief and his now-dead wife, who had told him he was the only one she trusted to remove the cancers defiling her body.
Their stories are baroque, bizarre, even repellent. The characters inhabit the outer limits of the fringe of those who can be thought of as society's victims, and yet the extremity of their tales marks them as doomed messiahs, their suffering meant to stand for, if not absolve, the suffering of all victims. And while the books end with the cases solved, the evildoers either dead or destroyed, there is no sense of triumph, no illusion that justice has been restored. "My tears were not for me," No Name says at the end of I Was Dora Suarez; "they were for the rightful fury of the people."
That line can be taken as either equal to the anguish that has preceded it--as the benediction to the horrific I Was Dora Suarez--or an example of overwrought writing. Because he wrote hard-boiled detective fiction, Raymond was prone to sentimentality disguised as the dirty, unvarnished truth about the world, and, especially when No Name is threatening an uncooperative witness or showing he's uncowed by a superior's rank, the books can show a relish for aggression. In his introduction to He Died With His Eyes Open, crime novelist James Sallis tries gamely to bring up the perpetually unresolved question of literature as it pertains to the detective novel. It's a question that critics usually pretend to settle either by falsely elevating the work in question to literature or, equally falsely, by citing aesthetic flaws (like Raymond's sentimentality) and the reliance on formula to argue that a "low" genre can never touch us in the way that literature does.
But by and large, the critical classifying of works--different from delineating their character and nuances--is a mug's game, a way for critics to turn themselves into clerks more interested in shelving a book than in explicating it. Sallis suggests there is a critical duty in experiencing "literature truly written from the edge of the human experience," and it's silly not to acknowledge that such works, by necessity, often can't stay true to their subject while existing within fixed aesthetic parameters. But I Was Dora Suarez, the fourth book in the Factory cycle, makes even that defense inadequate. The book provoked Marilyn Stasio, the sober, straightforward crime-fiction critic for The New York Times Book Review, to this lyrical appraisal: "If you think of the act of writing as a game of chicken between the author and his talent, then Derek Raymond is one author who achieves his ecstasy by sailing off cliffs. Everything about 'I Was Dora Suarez' shrieks of the joy and pain of going too far."
That's a superb encapsulation of the tone of the book--and still, it doesn't prepare you for the book itself. Writing about I Was Dora Suarez presents the temptation to play at the critical form of hard-boiled braggadocio, saying in effect to the reader, "I was tough enough to take it. Are you?"
I'm not sure I am.
Reading the book made me nauseous. Rereading it for this piece, I found it necessary to restrict my time with it to daylight hours. Reading it after dark gave me nightmares. Nor do I want to play at listing the specifics of the book, thereby feeding the kind of interest that will send people to it for a kick, the way they go see the latest piece of horror-movie torture porn. I don't know if I Was Dora Suarez can be called literature at all. If it's possible for a book to be utterly repugnant and deeply compassionate at the same time, then I Was Dora Suarez is.
Raymond opens with a twenty-eight-page chapter, the vast majority of which is devoted to the rape-torture-murder of Dora and the murder of Betty Carstairs, the impoverished pensioner who has taken Dora in, making their relationship one of the only human connections in Raymond's novels motivated by pity, compassion and love. Raymond takes no pleasure in what he describes. The crimes are graphic but not lingered over, and written without any hint of titillation or the "Lookee what I can do!" showboating of Bret Easton Ellis. (The same can't be said for the masochistic ritual the killer refers to as "his punishment"; it's in these passages that the book verges on Grand Guignol.)
In some ways, we have to get beyond that opening to comprehend the true awfulness. That comes in the second chapter, when we see the crime scene through No Name's eyes. Before No Name even takes in the corpses, Raymond writes of Betty and Dora's flat--squalid, dirty, damp, crammed with clothing and mementos that are as dead as the bodies in the other room, things that long ago ceased to have contact with anything living. The deaths are an unmatched blasphemy, but the alternative, life in this place, has its own cruelty.
The book contains moments of unembarrassed emotion, such as No Name kissing Dora's corpse on her matted, bloodstained hair and telling her everything will be all right now. The futility of that compassion, and No Name's compulsion to express it, are piercing. But what sticks with you, for good and ill, are the mounting horrors--scatological, clinical, sexual--that go beyond even that opening. I Was Dora Suarez finds Raymond's most undeniable metaphor for a society in which people have become goods to be used and discarded. But it's an impossible book to recommend. How can you judge the quality of a book when it's hard enough to deal with the fact of it?