I knew Robin Cook by reputation long before I ever met him. His publisher in France, François Guerif, had talked at such length and with such enthusiasm for both the man and his writing, that when I finally laid eyes on Robin himself, standing up to the bar in the conference hotel hosting Nottingham’s Shots in the Dark International Mystery and Thriller Festival some years back, I was more than a little in awe. Everything about him was immediately recognizable: the leather jacket, the black beret, the cigarette, even the blonde on his arm. We were introduced and shook hands and he was nice enough to say he knew my work, though I suspect he was being polite; he was affable and friendly, greeting me as a colleague, a co-conspirator, both then and on the several further occasions we were to meet.
I must have read The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), the second of the Factory novels he wrote as Derek Raymond, round about that time, and I read it again before writing this.
He knows how to get you, Derek/Robin; knows how to pull you in.
This, it its entirety, is Chapter One.
I knocked at a second-floor flat in a dreary house, one of two hundred in a dreary Catford street.Right. As a reader, you’re nicked.
After a while I heard steps the other side of the door. “McGruder?”
“Who’s that?” said a man’s voice. “Who wants him?”
“I do,” I said. “Open up. Police.”
The novel, as it develops, becomes, at its heart, a duel between the copper telling the story--the detective sergeant who works in The Factory, a small, under-resourced, off-the-wall unit that investigates low-level murders, the kind where nobody usually gives a shit about the victim, including, at times, the victims themselves--and the principal villain, Billy McGruder, an ex-Squaddie who grew up in Northern Ireland in a brutal loveless home that’s infected his behavior ever since.
It’s this clash of opposites who are, in fact, in so many ways alike, that is the nerve center of the book and gives it its main focus and strength. The Factory copper has lost his wife, other than as a demented non-person, and lost his child. He’s a man alone with his grievances against the world and his heart of stone. And McGruder is ... well, this is McGruder:
He stared at me without any expression at all, and I knew it was no use. He would always come out in pieces, in fury and despair, his way of describing a sense of loss. He would feel for a second, or a minute, if you reached out far enough to him; but he was too far gone, with violence behind him, violence in front and behind him. Like a broken piano, he could only make discords.It’s the violence, of course, that lies at the heart of the novel, at the heart of all of Factory novels, at the terrible heart of Robin’s Derek Raymond enterprise, culminating in I Was Dora Suarez (1990), a book I have several times started reading and never, squeamish as I am, been able to finish.
Violence in these books, it seems to me, is both a reality and a metaphor: a metaphor for Robin’s growing disgust at the world around him. I can understand, I think, what he is doing, where he is going, without wanting to take that journey all the way with him.
I was reminded in places of an interview I heard with the late J.G. Ballard, in which he expressed an old-fashioned regret for the fact that when we jettisoned the certainties of the post-World War II world in Britain, we neglected to replace them with anything else other than thoughtless consumerism and a love for vacuous celebrity. Robin, I think, might have gone along with that--his protagonist certainly would.
There used to be dignity in life; I used to see it all around me when I was young. But now it’s gone. People no longer care about each other the way they used to--not the way my old man used to tell me life was when he worked in the Fire Service during the war and the bombing. Then, people who didn’t even know each other would go down into flattened buildings after a raid and shovel to get at the people buried down there as if the victims were their brothers. Even after the war there was some trust left; it ran on nearly into the Sixties. But now it’s all sorry, squire, don’t want to know.And there’s a beautifully written section--Chapter 14--in which the narrator harks back to his time as a young policeman in London and muses on the effects of the war, and it’s in extended passages like this, and the occasional down-to-earth and precise metaphor--“She was a hard-looking woman in her thirties with about as much pity in her face as an empty plate.”--that the strengths of Robin Cook’s writing come through most clearly.
Elsewhere, when he allows the plot to take him into areas he doesn’t truly seem interested in or to be capable of rendering convincingly--such as a late subplot involving Russian spies and a threat to the life of the defense minister--the tension drops and the quality of the book suffers.
Robin’s compass in these novels is a limited one--the scruffy low-life of down-at-heel pubs and seedy London back streets, the very real anguish of personal pain and loss, the extremities of violence itself. Limited but, once acknowledged, none the worse for that. Indeed, that very concentration is the books’ great gain; it gives them, at their best, an intensity that is rarely matched elsewhere.
NEXT UP: How the Dead Live (1986)