Dora was woman in a photograph. Lying across a sofa with one arm thrown up around her black bouffant hair, a face like an early 1960s film star now turned into a death mask, the terror still resounding in her stare. Glinting off the huge knife protruding from her midriff.
In the book of real-life crime scenes where he found her, her name was not recorded. It was author Robin Cook who named her Dora, choosing the Spanish surname Suarez because of that thick black hair, those almond-shaped black eyes. He’d given himself a new identity recently too, an amalgam of his two favorite drinking partners. He didn’t want to be mistaken for something he wasn’t, a politician or a science-fiction author. He was a ghostwriter, chasing the spirit of an anonymous dead girl through the longest night, up in his tower in Avignon, far from the London he was so vividly describing. Deep in séance for 18 months.
“If I had no guilt to purge,” he later recalled, “I would not have known where the road to Hell was, nor how to look for Dora.”
Cook risked it all with his 1990 novel, I Was Dora Suarez. He had successfully crossed over into being Derek Raymond with the publication of 1984’s He Died with His Eyes Open, the first of the Factory series in which he established his new identity with the nameless Detective Sergeant from A14 Unexplained Deaths, a grim adjunct of the Met’s murder squad. In that book, the DS had solved the murder of Charles Staniland, a 51-year-old alcoholic divorcé whose past life, described via a series of cassettes the DS finds in the murdered man’s room, was a mirror for the author’s own. The new Derek Raymond investigated the old Robin Cook in a book symbolic with death and rebirth.
The DS wasn’t a romantic figure. He was a failed husband and father, haunted by the mistakes of his past and their many repercussions. An anomaly as a copper and as a member of society in general, his only redemption was in tending to the souls of the worthless, the forgotten, and the unloved.
You reach out your hand in the darkness, and you never know
what you will touch.
In Suarez, Cook confronted a subject that few really want to acknowledge even now, in a society where, nearly 20 years on from his time of writing, two women a day die at the hands of their partners and only 5.7 percent of all reported rapes result in convictions. A simple question, the one that lies at the root of noir:
Why do men hate women so much?To search for a solution, Robin projected himself into the mind of Dora’s killer. In the book’s harrowing opening pages, this deadly, self-contained fury breaks into the Kensington rooms that Dora is sharing with her elderly landlady, Betty Carstairs. Dispatching the old woman with a casualness that is more shocking than the violence itself, he stands on the threshold of Dora’s room, savoring the feast of death that is to come. And when it does, Cook does not hold back on the graphic description of Dora’s dismemberment and defilement, nor her unnerving passivity in submitting to her fate. There are no fava beans and fine Chianti here. This author wants us to take a good, long, unflinching look at what the last few moments were like for Dora and the man snuffing her out, to feel, smell, and taste them--how banal and brutal a killer really is.
It’s a revelation that even comes to the murderer, when, having spent his lust and come down from his homicidal high, reality impinges on the corners of his mind. He hurries to bat away these creeping feelings of disappointment and emptiness, assuaging himself with another killing on the other side of town, that of club owner Felix Roatta at his Clapham mansion.
It is the DS who will next stand in the cold, gray room, like an avenging angel hovering over the remains of Dora Suarez. “The tragedy of help,” he murmurs, “is that it never arrives.” In a method similar to that of Staniland in He Died, the DS is able to reconstruct Dora’s life from her diaries, and he comes in for his first shock when he discovers that her killer was also her lover. But this is very far from a crime of passion. The killer and Dora had first become acquainted at a specialist sex club in Soho called The Parallel Club, owned by the recently deceased Roatta.
The Parallel Club and what has gone on there is at the dark heart of this story, the symbol of man’s inhumanity to woman and the focus of Cook’s meditation that sex is violence. As a result of what Dora has done here, she is already dying before the killer breaks in on her, from an abominable assortment of STDs, including AIDS. Any power she might conceivably have wielded with her good looks has been systematically broken down and taken from her at its source: her genitals have virtually dissolved from disease. Her meek acceptance of her fate is also explained: Dora was preparing to commit suicide on the night she was murdered. But like all those who batter and kill their partners, her jealous lover was determined to take away what little choice over her own life she still had left.
At the root of the killer’s rage is his own inability to perform regular sexual intercourse, an extension of his general lack of personality. This is the vital theme of the entire Factory series, Cook’s philosophy of killers as bores. As the DS puts it:
“Bores and killers are much the same; dullness and despair explains most murders. Killers kill because they spew out far too much energy on being polite in a way that normal people never do ... I have never met one single stimulating killer in all my time with A14; and if you’ve never met one there then I very much doubt you will meet one anywhere.”The killer punishes himself for his inadequacies by removing them as surely as he did for Dora--strapping his cock to a bicycle wheel and slowly pedaling away the flesh, destroying that troublesome “little self.” The pain distracts him from the tremors of self-realization that continue to blip through his consciousness: that there has never been any point to any of this and that the only possible outcome can be his own annihilation.
Cook’s insight into the psychosexual make-up of a serial killer came from his friend, the journalist Sandy Fawkes, who, while covering a story in Atlanta, Georgia, in November 1974, had a dalliance with a man called Paul John Knowles. She spent several days in his company, unaware that he had raped and killed at least 18 people. Fawkes recounted her experiences in the book Killing Time (1977, republished as Natural Born Killer in 2004), where she detailed Knowles’ inability to become sexually aroused without activating his deeper desires for domination and death. Cook always credited Fawkes for this kernel of essential information that he ran with in Suarez.
The book was not a great success on publication. In fact, even getting it accepted was an uphill struggle for Robin’s agent, Maxim Jakubowski, whose story about one editor throwing up over his desk after reading Suarez has passed into legend. Cook did not have any common ground with his peers in British crime writing and was at pains to distance himself from them. He was more at home with writers such as Stewart Home, Iain Sinclair, and Chris Petit, whose intelligent and idiosyncratic works also map the psychic plains of London; and the band Gallon Drunk, with whom he made a soundtrack to the novel I Was Dora Suarez, which was re-released on Sartorial Records last year. (The cover of that CD is shown above.)
But there was one writer that he did feel a real kinship to, who had also recently written a highly personal séance for a murdered girl. James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987) stands alongside Suarez as the two books that changed everything--like the Beatles and the Stones or the Pistols and the Clash of contemporary crime writing. Everyone from David Peace to George Pelecanos, Ken Bruen to James Sallis, not to mention the authors contributing to this Rap Sheet series, have been inspired by the possibilities offered up by these books to create their own investigations under the carpet of society, asking not whodunit, but why. Personally, I Was Dora Suarez remains the most important book I ever read.
“Nothing else much matters once you have achieved the hardest thing, which is to act out of conviction,” Cook surmised in 1992. “Even if you have been beaten by evil, in the bitterness of defeat the battle has left a trace for the others, and you can go feeling clean.”
NEXT UP: Dead Man Upright (1993)
READ MORE: “Journey to the End of the Night: A Personal Journey Through Noir Writing,” by Cathi Unsworth (Nude Magazine).