Friday, December 04, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “He Died with
His Eyes Open,” by Derek Raymond

(Editor’s note: This is the 73rd installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. It is also, however, the first entry in a special miniseries honoring all five of the Factory novels penned by British writer Derek Raymond. Today The Rap Sheet welcomes Tony Black, the Australia-born Edinburgh author of the Gus Dury series [Gutted and Paying for It], who has a few things to say about Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open.)

I arrived at the genius of Derek Raymond too late. But, as the adage goes, better late than never. If memory serves, I’d been struggling with a reading slump. One of those dispiriting patches where nothing I picked up seemed to be what I wanted to read. Everything was too wordy, too writerly, or the voice grated, the story took too long to start, the prose lacked sparkle. I turned to the recommendations of well-meaning friends but struggled to get past the first few pages of anything I picked up. I couldn’t re-read, either. Even old favorites seemed unappealing. The printed word was dead to me.

I’d been at that point before. When I was a nipper, anything beyond comic books was a struggle for me, seemed like hard work, or worse, school work. It took an overly dramatic primary teacher’s enthusiasm for Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island to get me reading; after discovering Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, I never looked back. I devoured those books, and, if truth be told, had been looking for that heady fix ever since ... This latest reading slump was a sure sign that I needed to up the dose once more.

I’d taken reading advice from friends before but it’s a tricky business; as any writer knows, everyone’s reading is subjective, what one person takes from a book won’t necessarily be the same as another; everyone filters the page through his or her own worldview, tastes, and assumptions. Taking a book to read from a friend is like letting someone else pick your dinner from the menu.

At least three close friends had recommended Derek Raymond’s work to me before; they were all Londoners. Somehow, I made the association in my subconscious that Raymond was “a London writer.” I’d tried putting Irvine Welsh books on people and got looks askance and comments such as “It’s very Edinburgh”; I anticipated the same would happen with Raymond.

Then there was the mythology: Raymond’s privileged upbringing courtesy of a textile-magnate father; his running long firms for the criminal Krays; his rebirth as an author and his Rimbaud-esque abandonment of the form; bad marriage after bad marriage; the wholesale praise from latter-day noirist masters like Ken Bruen and Cathi Unsworth; and the gaunt-thin, world-weary, well-lived-in face with piercing eyes that crept after you and yelled, “I’m the man, doubt me?”

I first cracked the spine on He Died with His Eyes Open (1984) on a typically dreich, gray, Saturday morning in my then cold-water Edinburgh flat with the sound of jakeys fighting over the spoils of supermarket dumpsters below my window. There had been a fire in a new-build block of yuppie apartments just the night before and the blaze had been abandoned by the fire brigade, spreading an ominous gray pall over the horizon that added to the already dystopian air at my end of town.

Raymond, or to give him his proper name, Robin Cook, wrote the first book in his acclaimed Factory series after a writing hiatus of around 10 years. He had been living peripatetically in Europe and, legend tells, was challenged to write again by a friend who taunted him that he had penned his last. He adopted a pseudonym to avoid confusion with the truck-stop thriller writer who shared his real name, and the rest is history.

By the time I got to this book, Raymond’s reputation was unassailable. I’ve always been wary of heady praise. Popularity is no marker of quality and I’ve got a finely tuned hype detector which goes off, it seems, at least once a month these days. But it was clear from its opening lines that He Died with His Eyes Open was something special:
He was found in the shrubbery in front of the West of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirteenth of March, during the evening rush-hour.
The reader is dropped into the action immediately. This is a murder story, in case you’re in any doubt. Raymond covers some territory in those two sentences--the brutality of a killing contrasted with the gentility of a shrubbery; a body uncovered in the rush-hour. My imagination was fired already, without the allusions of “Albatross,” “West of God,” or the unlucky number “thirteen.”

What followed was unlike any other crime novel I’d read before. On the surface, He Died with His Eyes Open is a police procedural, but the unnamed officer from the Met’s A14, Department of Unexplained Deaths, follows little or no procedure. He barely follows his nose; his assumed task is a psychological investigation. A stripping of the thin epidermis of respectability that covers a rotten society.

Even while studying the corpse of a man who had been “systematically beaten” to death, Raymond’s world-weary detective can’t help commenting on the shittiness of 1980s London, with its mass unemployment and air of faded grandeur:
Inside the ambulance the ruined face of Charles Locksley Alwin Staniland screamed silently up at its white roof which a British Leyland operator had sprayed one day when he happened not to be on strike and needed the overtime.
Perhaps because he is on the lower rungs himself, the investigating officer--languishing in “the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service”--treats the murder of a 51-year-old down-on-his-luck writer with a degree of probity his fellow officers find laughable.

An early exchange with the cocky Chief Inspector Bowman from Serious Crimes shows what the investigating officer is up against.
“I like to see justice.”

“Justice? You‘re a berk,” said Bowman. “You’re forty, you’re a sergeant, and you actually despise promotion.”

“I’m not on my way upstairs like you are,” I said. “Not with cases like this one.”

“It won’t even be reported.”

“No, I know,” I said. “And that sort of thing matters to you.”

“Of course it does.”

“But the trouble with you is, it shows.”

“Have it your own way,” said Bowman, “You can stay on at Unexplained Deaths till you rot, for all I care ... ”
The victim, Staniland, as an upper-class writer, currently living down-at-heel, shares some biographical baggage with Raymond; undoubtedly an effective resource to draw on as the murder victim is portrayed as one of the most fully rounded and carefully executed characters I’ve encountered. And he’s dead. As an exploration of the crime, Raymond’s purview covers the full 360 degrees; he misses nothing, getting under the skin of all his characters with a skill I still find is unmatched.

As the case proceeds, the investigating officer uncovers Staniland’s tape-recorded journal, an eerie voice from beyond the grave which brings two disparate strands of the story together, unites victim and avenger and delves deeper into the heart of darkness. A pained relationship between the victim and a woman called Barbara is revealed; she is a classic femme fatale, but Raymond’s detective turns the tables on her, beginning a relationship to ferret out information about the murder. Barbara’s connection to a man called Harvey Fenton, whom Staniland refers to as the “Laughing Cavalier” on his tapes, contains the vital key to solving the crime. From Staniland’s recordings:
Last night I met the Laughing Cavalier again in the Agincourt. I don’t know if I can really stand going in there much longer, in spite of my determination. Barbara was with me. This terrible man hates me. He gives off waves of hatred towards me, even when his back is turned. It’s strange to be the object of raw, naked hatred, it glares out of the person at you like the truth, or a disease.
In these two, barely socialized psychopaths, Raymond’s detective confronts the failures of a rotten, brutal society which had turned on itself like a mad dog chasing its tail. As Britain’s Conservative Thatcher government of the ’80s was starving the miners and breaking union power to facilitate the transition to all-out consumerism, those people at society’s low end were of little value; life was cheap.

Derek Raymond offers us disillusioned mean streets. His detective no more cares for upholding the mores of a diseased corporate body than he does for playing a role in the chaos; he’s trying simply to make sense of it all. To find some understanding. It’s an existential quest for meaning. Pure undiluted noir from a man who knew the life, and wrote the book on it.

NEXT UP: The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985)


Evan Lewis said...

I'm sold, Tony. I'll be looking for this.

Paul D Brazill said...

Top post. One of my favourite book titles too.