Once upon a time and not long ago, the Detective was the third man in crime fiction. I’m not exactly sure when that changed, but it did. I believe crime fiction changed when the criminal became either sympathetic, or a marvel unto himself. The criminal became Lou Ford, Tom Ripley, and Dexter, or Gloria Denton and Crissa Stone. The Anti-Hero is a guilty pleasure. The reader was always there as a voyeur, complicit in the crime since he or she tries to solve the crime with the protagonist as the pages go by; the coda of satisfaction is the sight and sound of pieces that dovetail at the end, the arc completed from dead body discovered to suspect in cuffs, or otherwise punished. I will go so far as to say that the modern reader of crime fiction is sensitized and desensitized to unspeakable violence and cruelty.
The detective was self-educated, often a polymath, and a paragon of rationality, even when the detective had some serious flaws. Holmes had his fondness for cocaine. Marlowe boozed and chain-smoked. In the end, however, they got the job done: the bad guy got his, in or outside the courtroom. Then a curious thing happened. Sometimes the criminal is a careerist with the bad luck of a Eddie Coyle. Crime fiction started involving the man on the street, the Joe wronged, who — in effect – was given the task of figuring it out. The detective – stand-in for some kind of Justice — all but disappears. He is as faceless as the Continental Op; nameless as the Sergeant in Derek Raymond’s Factory Series, or absent altogether in Nabokov’s underappreciated thriller Despair.
Two things happened with crime fiction: it sold a lot of books and made for great film. American cinema, influenced by German émigrés such as Fritz Lang, emphasized the darkness, and shadow. British noir had had a delayed premiere on the silver screen because censors nixed anything negative to the wartime morale. When the British film directors did put noir up on the screen, their influence came from across the Channel; not from Germany, but France. Marcel Carné’s trilogy: Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938); Hôtel du Nord (1938), and Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939) set the tone. There were shadows and lots and lots of fog, but there was also poetic-realism and Gallic grittiness. This is where Kipling’s phrase is appropriate: “never the twain shall meet.” He was speaking to the chasm between the British and Indian people. The same could be said about American and British noir literature — “never the twain shall meet” — and probably the same can be said of noir literature from other countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Sweden, and so on. I’ll limit myself to a sliver of the American and British tradition of crime fiction.
The wrong decision, the fateful choice characterized noir, from keeping the found money to chasing the femme fatale. Another hallmark trait is snarky repartee, that entertaining banter dished out between the PI and the bad guys, or whoever is at the bar or across the desk. Chandler’s Marlowe casts his best lines at figures of authority. American noir readers know the scene: there are good guys, bad guys, and those who, like the Continental Op, operate in the shadows. The structure of society is loose, although the cops can’t be trusted and fast money and faster women talk loudly. In Hammett’s Red Harvest, it is clear that Big Money is what animates life in “Personville called Poisonville.” Chandler was not so naïve about the dark alleys, but he did get upset when Jim Thompson had broken rank and started writing crime from the criminal’s point of view. Then it wasn’t a matter of bad choices; there wasn’t any hope; no need for the detective at all. He could just disappear. The criminals could just police themselves, whether it was along the lines of clans or ethnicity.
As I had stated above, British noir got a late start, but, when the dark flower had finally bloomed, it made up for lost time. British crime fiction has a genteel pedigree. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie are but two examples. Class is always in the background in all of British literature. Derek Raymond, who is considered the godfather of British noir, is – blasphemy of blasphemies – quite French, quite the existentialist. The violence in his work will nauseate. An editor lost his lunch after reading an excerpt. The Sergeant’s frustration with his superiors in The Factory is palpable. Raymond’s dialog cuts like a rusted razor.
(Image from the-dirty-lowdown.blogspot.com)
The blackness in Raymond’s writing isn’t the crimes, or the bleak surroundings, the endless parade of lowlifes, though all of them are bleak, depressing, über-violent and unsettling. It’s the disappearance, the anonymity of Victim and civil servant. He is ‘Sergeant.’ He works in the Unexplained Deaths Department within ‘The Factory,’ a mindless and thoughtless grind of an institution. His superiors are bureaucratic idiots, but class-conscious: one knows their place in the pecking order.
In the first of the Factory books, He Died With His Eyes Open, the victim is a John Doe, a man beaten to death. In a word, he has been pulped until he is unrecognizable. In Factory Book 2, The Devil’s Home on Leave, a man is not only found dead in a warehouse, but his remains inside five bags. The third outing, How The Dead Live, is a missing-person’s case, but retracing the woman’s hours is like a depressing documentary on blight and social decay outside of London. In the fourth installment, I was Dora Suarez, a woman and her elderly neighbor are bludgeoned to death. In this particular novel, Dora was dead woman walking. Sergeant discovers that she is dying from AIDS. The last Factory book, Dead Man Upright, published posthumously, is part procedural to catch a serial killer, while the second half of the book is a conversation between the serial killer and his shrink. He isn’t a Hannibal Lechter.
Raymond is an uneven writer. He was the darkest of the dark for his time. British noir writers after him are, if anything, even more violent in their descriptions. Unfortunately, the red bloodbath turns purple quickly. Raymond may seem British but he is as pessimistic as Beckett, who loved French pulp fiction, and as morally twisted as Genet. He is a social critic in that he criticized Thatcher’s Britain (the first of the Factory novels appeared in 1984). He has an ear for argot, which can make him more of a curiosity. His first publication, The Crust on Its Uppers (1962) is unreadable without the glossary in back. Coincidentally, A Clockwork Orange, famous for its unintelligible mélange of Cockney rhyme, Russian and British adolescent slang, appeared the same year.
I may have stretched the argument in saying that Derek Raymond was more French than British since I hadn’t mentioned some of his French peers, such as Jean-Patrick Manchette or Thierry Jonquet (read his Tarantula), with whom he shares some affinities, or that the French make distinctions in their crime fiction: roman noir (dark novel), roman policier (procedural) and roman polar (hardboiled thriller with a cinematic quality). I do feel that one aspect of Raymond’s Factory Series has been overlooked: his compassion.
Sergeant reconstructs the gruesome crimes. True, it is part of the detective tradition, but read Dora Suarez and you see a nameless man identify and relive a woman’s emotions. His compassion – not his sense of justice – is what drives Sergeant. The title I Was Dora Suarez can read as victim statement or investigator’s identification with the victim. In the universe of crime fiction, where characters are unlikeable and protagonists are dysfunctional, Sergeant is uncharacteristically empathetic. He uses the same MO in He Died With His Eyes Open. Sergeant knows that Justice is easily compromised, a matter of the right lawyer and deep pockets, of who can reach out and corrupt law enforcement. That the victims are often the marginalized members of society, those the upper crust merely tolerate as necessary, says something about Derek Raymond’s vision.
Derek Raymond was the pseudonym for Robin Cook. He changed his name to avoid any confusion with Robin Cook, the author of Coma. Cook was an interesting character. Born to wealth and privilege, he dropped out of Eton, and spent the majority of his life slumming with London’s underbelly. Like the troubled Alexander Trocchi, known best for Young Adam, and a man of many faces, Raymond wrote pornography and frequented the dark side of life. He drank. He was an art smuggler and a shadowy associate of the infamous Kray Brothers. The prolific Derek Raymond would write a memoir, The Hidden Files, before he died in 1994 from cancer at the age of 63.
In the Introduction to his memoir, Raymond conveys a sense of disappearing into writing, of having hidden files, unbreakable codes, as if he were a computer.
These memoirs are an attempt to break the codes and gain access to them, although even when open they will not have the readability of a novel; after all, the files only describe functions.
The fact that I am this machine and not a different one, better oriented to the other, and that I am deceptive exactly because the hidden files are present although unseen, is a source of distress to me as well as those close to me. Yet none of us, apart from minor modifications, have any choice but to be what we are.
Just as the Sergeant was a nameless cog in the machinery, so Raymond disappeared into himself, seeing himself as a machine.