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Death at One's Elbow: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels | The Nation

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Death at One's Elbow: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels

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Serpent's TailDerek Ramond, 1989

About the Author

Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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"Murder, which is a frustration...of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news." When Raymond Chandler wrote those lines in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," he was talking about detective stories in which murder, however persistent, is seen as a violation of the social order. In the "Factory" series, the sequence of crime novels written from 1984 to 1990 by the late English crime writer Derek Raymond, murder has become a perfect expression of the prevailing political order--in this case, Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Thatcher famously claimed that there is no such thing as society. In the Factory novels, the social order can't be violated because it has already been dismantled.

Thatcher is never named in the Factory books, but her shadow falls over them. With their dogged, lyrical, sometimes sentimental, sometimes appallingly violent manner, they offer a consistent portrait of a world in which people are not respected for their humanity but valued according to their usefulness to those in power. To those foolish enough to still think of Thatcher as a female version of Ronald Reagan--in other words, those who don't understand how her undisguised social Darwinism was far more ruthless than Reagan's blithe free-market cheerleading--the novels might be a shock. The books are certainly as bracing as much of the anti-Thatcher art of the era--novels like Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Jonathan Coe's The Winshaw Legacy; the music of the Mekons and the more pointed Elvis Costello songs like "Pills and Soap" and "Tramp the Dirt Down"; and especially the astonishing vitality of English cinema of the times, in movies such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Mona Lisa and High Hopes, and in forgotten films like Defense of the Realm, Letter to Brezhnev, No Surrender and Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

The brutality of some hard-boiled detective heroes, their contempt for procedure and regulations, seems to belong to a right-wing law-and-order ethos. But apart from the fallacy of equating order with conservatism, the politics of the genre are not so easily pinned down. (Besides, from Thatcher trashing the National Health Service to Bush abandoning New Orleans and demolishing the world economy, the restoration of order is increasingly being left to liberals.) The rebelliousness of the detective hero--his contempt for hypocrisy, the way he usually finds himself pitted against the interests of the powerful, his thirst for justice--makes him a figure who cannot be controlled or counted upon to uphold the status quo. These contradictions recall Norman Mailer's meditation on the nature of police: "Supposed to be law-enforcers, they tend to conceive of themselves as the law.... They are attached umbilically to the concept of honesty, they are profoundly corrupt. They possess more physical courage than the average man, they are unconscionable bullies; they serve the truth, they are psychopathic liars."

The nameless cop hero of the Factory novels--we'll call him No Name--is one of those denizens of detective stories and police procedurals who get into trouble because they break the rules and rub the top brass the wrong way. No Name has no time for niceties or regulations or respect for his superiors (one book ends with him breaking a supervisor's jaw). He's an outcast, but not because he's a brutal bastard. Rather, he's an outcast because, in a society that has given up nearly all notions of justice or service, he takes his job seriously.

The police division No Name works for is Unexplained Deaths, the sinkhole reserved for the cases that will bring the cops who solve them no publicity, no promotion. "We work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don't matter and who never did," says No Name in He Died With His Eyes Open. "We have the lowest budget, we're last in line for allocations, and promotion is so slow that most of us never get past the rank of sergeant.... No murder is casual to us, and no murder is unimportant, even though murder happens the whole time in a city like this."

The voice may sound familiar to readers of detective fiction: it's the hard-boiled hero, cynical on the outside, wounded on the inside. But pay attention to the stray lines: "people who don't matter and who never did" and "we're last in line for allocations." Then consider these seemingly tossed-off remarks about the deaths No Name investigates over the course of the books: "There was nothing about Staniland in the paper. Staniland wasn't news." "Nobody was ever caught for her, and Mrs. Mayhew made four lines in the Watford Observer." No Name on his superiors' reaction to a double murder: "It's the press that bothers them up there...ot the bodies." The England of the Factory series is a place where the idea of government service has become, at best, quaint, and where murder has become a convenient means of disposing of the undesirable.

Other novelists fantasized about Thatcher planning the obsolescence of those people who didn't fit into her agenda. In McEwan's The Child in Time, the nameless future Prime Minister (never referred to by a gender-specific pronoun--the implication is that Thatcher would rule forever) institutes a program requiring beggars to purchase a government license, thus eliminating thousands from the unemployment rolls. In Coe's The Winshaw Legacy, the most considered and murderous of the anti-Thatcher novels, an architect of Tory rule prohibits the use of the word "hospital" in all discussions of the National Health Service. "We call them 'provider units,'" he writes. "The hospital becomes a shop, the operation becomes a piece of merchandise, and normal business practices prevail: pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap. The beautiful simplicity of this idea astounds me."

The beautiful, ruthless simplicity of the Factory novels--the title of the series refers to the London Police HQ--is that Raymond rewrites the basic ethos of the classic detective novel. Where once murder had been a rent in the social fabric, now it is something like a means of social control--Thatcher's method of governance as social engineering taken to its most logical and brutal extreme.

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?

The best novel in the Factory sequence is the third, How the Dead Live. That title (later filched, by his own admission, by Will Self) sounds like one of the grim gags Charles Willeford used to name his Hoke Moseley novels--New Hope for the Dead. What's between the covers reads as if Raymond Chandler had collaborated with Mary Shelley. No Name is sent to the village of Thornhill, where a local aristocrat, the French wife of the town's doctor, hasn't been seen in six months. The woman was beloved for voice recitals that everyone came to hear, enjoying the hospitality of having a grand house opened to them. The last memories anyone has of her are of a few appearances in town wearing a mysterious veil. During his sojourn No Name encounters the entire cast of characters needed for the tale of a two-fisted cop uncovering the dirty secrets of a picture-perfect small town.

Except that nothing is picture-perfect in How the Dead Live. Rot and decay hang over everything, the persistent sense of there never being enough light or heat, of everything marinating in the stench of damp. The doctor's mansion is a mockery of its grandeur. There are rooms of ruined books and mildewed furniture, and one touch that's like a photo negative of Miss Havisham's realm of dust and decay: a grand piano whose keys are choked by the moss that has taken them over.

But it's not appreciably different from what's happening in London. As No Name drives out of the city at night on the way to Thornhill, this is what he sees:

Sickening errors, democratically arrived at of course, lay [on] either side of the road as I drove west out of London. Blocks of semi-abandoned streets made dead ends of effort where people who had tried to start something--anything--had been crushed by the dull triumphant logic of the state.... In further sad, narrow streets...lay ruined three-storey houses that the council neither had the money to restore, nor corruption interest in pulling down. These were all dark--the power, the water cut off in them, life itself cut off there at this wrong end of winter. Yet life still did cling on in them, I knew. Uncivilized, mad life; these rank buildings that had housed self-respecting families once were now occupied by squatters of any kind--the desperate last fugitives of a beaten, abandoned army, their dignity, rights and occupations gone (or never known), their hope gone, tomorrow gone.

Just as the form of this novel seems to travel back in time--it begins as an urban detective novel, then turns into an English country-house mystery, before settling into a tale of mad passion that Poe might have understood--in that long passage England itself seems to recede. Just a page before, No Name had been having a beer in Oxford Circus. Dangerous, semi-abandoned streets give way to ones where the mad life that does exist is hidden behind dark ruined houses. And suddenly it's as if those few lights, the families locked up in their flats, are Druid tribes, huddled round the fire against an impenetrable night wherein lurk things they can't even bring themselves to imagine.

The tale of gothic ardor that is gradually revealed in How the Dead Live might have seemed to belong to another time if Raymond hadn't already painted a portrait of England having been driven back to an earlier age. Only, in this dark age, the country's glory is not ahead of it.

"My work tells me that our history is over," says No Name a few pages earlier in How the Dead Live; "we are all over. I know that in my work I am supposed to represent a future, but I find that impossible when I look back at the past." Or, as Johnny Rotten sang ten years before Raymond wrote those words, "No future for you." But the glee and fury in Rotten's voice, the suggestion that his scourging nihilism might express the possibility of feeling alive, if not good, is quite different from the weary melancholy of the Factory novels. Even the fury that rises in No Name cannot sustain itself, cannot disguise the fact that Raymond has written an elegy. The possibility of the evil that could be given full description in a sequel--an evil made possible when people are loosed from any sense of obligation, empowered by the sense that transgressing imagined limits is the way to self-fulfillment--has already been established here. "Murder happens the whole time in a city like this," Raymond wrote. The corpse on the slab in these books is finally England itself. But Raymond harbored no hope that the killer would be brought to justice.

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