Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times’ Richard Rayner gave a good accounting of Cook/Raymond’s evolution as a crime novelist:
Cook, married five times, was the son of a millionaire British textile magnate, born with the silver spoon and all that. He went to school at Eton, “the assembly line for rulers and bastards” (as he called it). Then, rather than proceed to Oxbridge or the army, he rebelled against his background, drifting into a world of petty, and sometimes not so petty, crime--his affable manners and toff accent were useful in ways that he hadn’t expected. He was an excellent con man.Published in 1984, He Died with His Eyes Open was the first of Raymond’s Factory novels (“factory” being a colloquial term for cop-shop). The Guardian calls that series “a master-class of noir,” in which the author places “his unnamed detective sergeant protagonist within the framework of the worst possible despair and blind rage that would fell most men. But Raymond, through his anti-heroic alter ego, makes the point again and again that there must be someone to speak for the dead, to answer the bellow of justice from beyond the grave even if they didn’t directly seek him out. The shitty end of the stick may be where the truth is, to paraphrase Raymond, but it also signified a welcome change of direction and voice that won him many admirers in London literary circles.”
In the early 1960s, Cook ran gaming tables in Chelsea and sold pornography in Soho. His name was splashed across the front pages because of a scam involving a stolen Rubens or two. He rubbed shoulders with aristocrats and gangsters and wrote books--comedies, but always with a nasty edge--about the dangerous demimonde he’d chosen to inhabit. The Crust on Its Uppers, Bombe Surprise and A State of Denmark are novels that feel as much a part of their time as those by Iris Murdoch--except that Cook wrote about tarts, thugs, chancers, rent boys and Fascists, not the sexual rondelays of academic Oxford.
The Crust on Its Uppers (a great title) is memorable for its slang and linguistic freshness. Going crazy becomes, in Cook-speak, “he lost his pedals in a serious manner.” By 1970, Cook had a career going, five or so novels written--and then something happened. He too lost his pedals. A marriage broke up and London became too hot, or maybe just too boring. He went to live abroad, first in Italy, then in remotest rural France, where he quit writing altogether for almost a decade, working on farms and in vineyards. Robin Cook had vanished, or died, it seemed to most people, and
maybe he had.
By the time he reappeared in London in the early 1980s, his already slender, rakish form had become almost skeletally thin. Beady eyes stared at you from a skull that belonged on a cadaver. His hair was filthy and his teeth were best not to think about. His haggard face was craggy and lined, and his sheet-like pallor suggested perpetual hangover. Yet there was unmistakable charisma too. He wore a black leather jacket and a beret and pronounced himself miffed by the existence of the new Robin Cook, referring to him as “the Coma bloke. Cheeky sod’s taken over my name. Bit much that.” So he was forced to publish the novel he’d just completed, He Died with His Eyes Open, under a pseudonym, Derek Raymond.
Brooklyn writer Charles Taylor went further, in a piece published last year by The Nation, toward explaining what it is that motivates Raymond’s central character:
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.I also like something Jeff VanderMeer wrote in the blog Ecstatic Days about the Factory series’ nameless narrator:
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 ... not 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.
He often clashes with his superior, Bowman, and has turned down promotion at every turn. His wife is in a lunatic asylum and is responsible for the central tragedy of the detective’s life--as is an earlier relationship with a woman who will always retain a gravitational pull on his heart but who can never be brought back to him. He has a sister he wishes he were closer to, but otherwise, at the time of the cases related in the novels, the detective is utterly alone.As Mike Ashley said of the Factory series in his must-have 2002 non-fiction resource, The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction, “Although these books are bleak and noisome--I Was Dora Suarez has been called “one of the most gruesome books ever published”--they are also honest and portray a life too many traditional crime novels try to avoid. [Raymond] painted the underbelly of London in all its shades of black.”
This isolation is key to understanding the inner psychology of the Factory novels. The detective literally lives through his work, and feels most fully engaged and connected to the world when he can inhabit the lives of the victims. Although the detective alludes to other cases, ones not related in the novels, the reader has the sense that he wasn’t as invested in those victims. He can recite the details, but there’s no emotional life to them.
But the cases in front of him--they’re all about an inner life, of bringing back the dead. In each case, to greater and lesser extents, the detective reanimates the victims, attempts to identify with them, attempts to honor them, to memorialize them through his efforts.
I hope all those shades will be shown clearly over the next month.
Our series about Raymond’s work was the brainchild of British Rap Sheet contributor Gordon Harries, who recruited a stellar collection of notable novelists to ponder the strengths and bleaknesses of the five Factory books. Tomorrow’s opening entry, about He Died with His Eyes Open, was penned by Tony Black, the Australia-born Edinburgh author of the Gus Dury series (Gutted and Paying for It). It will be followed by Diamond Dagger Award winner John Harvey’s reconsideration of The Devil’s Home on Leave; a tribute to How the Dead Live, written by Scottish novelist Russel D. McLean (The Good Son); a fervent defense of I Was Dora Suarez, composed by Cathi Unsworth (Bad Penny Blues); and No More Heroes author Ray Banks’ admiring essay about Dead Man Upright, the “anticlimax to the Factory series.”
Thanks again to Harries for his inspiration and dogged efforts to make this project happen. And I hope that Rap Sheet readers will enjoy the results, and learn from them as much as I did in reading all of these excellent essays.
READ MORE: “Obituary: Robin Cook,” by John Williams (The Independent); “Derek Raymond and a Few Upcoming Titles,” by Glenn Harper (International Noir Fiction).