“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.”