Friday, December 18, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“How the Dead Live,” by Derek Raymond

(Editor’s note: This is the 75th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. It is also, however, the third entry in a special miniseries honoring all five of the Factory novels penned by British writer Derek Raymond [aka Robin Cook]. Today The Rap Sheet welcomes Scottish novelist, critic, blogger, and self-described “general miscreant” Russel D. McLean. The author of both The Good Son and The Lost Sister, McLean has a few comments to share about Raymond’s How the Dead Live.)

When I was approached to write about How the Dead Live (1986) for The Rap Sheet, I was forced to admit that this was one of several Derek Raymond novels I had not yet encountered. I am, after all, a relative newcomer to the man’s fiction, brought into the fold only after someone claimed to have noticed a similarity in theme between my work and some of Raymond’s. By the time I finished The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), I was hooked. When I read A State of Denmark (1964), I knew there was no running back. So this was the perfect excuse for me to continue my exploration of Raymond’s work. What follows is a gut reaction to How the Dead Live; thoughts and ideas on not only the book itself, but on the way that Raymond’s writing has affected me as a reader.

The unnamed Detective Sergeant in this novel, who works for the London Metropolitan Police’s Department of Unexplained Deaths, is one of the most cynical and self-aware series protagonists you will ever meet. He feels sharply the pain of everyone he encounters, takes the darkness of the world and breathes it in as easily as he does the air or the alcohol that seems to get him through the day.

One of the things that immediately appealed to me about How the Dead Live was the removal of the protagonist from his zone of comfort. Rather than the urban decay of London, which is as much an extension of our nameless detective as it is its own sad character, we find ourselves in the English countryside. Called out to investigate a suspected murder (more of a missing-persons case), our man finds himself out of his environment and cast into a world he cannot understand, removed from any touchstones he might have had. I love the idea of removing a protagonist from anything he might consider comfortable. Although “comfort” is clearly a relative term in Raymond’s England.

What soon becomes clear is that the decay at the heart of Raymond’s novel is not merely limited to the urban environment. He’s far too clever for such a simple distinction. There is no respite among England’s green and pleasant land from the gray horror or the decaying amorality that our man knows so well. And that is perhaps one of the most wrenching things about this novel; the rot is there in every character we encounter. The very act of trying to live is to swim in shit for those in Raymond’s England. No one is without his or her worries. And those who think they are--such as the lecturer who opens this story by telling our detective about what it means to be a psychopath--are either deluded, ignorant, or out of touch. The truth that our man--and Raymond himself--understands is simple: No one is uncompromised.

Except, perhaps, the dead. And then, one has to wonder, perhaps that comes only in retrospect.

The people our man encounters--even those living in the country--would eat Dixon of Dock Green for lunch. An early encounter with the matriarch of a family on the outskirts of town shows our man having to fight for every inch of respect he can get. After being warned by a passing old-age pensioner that he’s unlikely to talk to this family and come out alive, Raymond’s protagonist is forced to approach the family head, to offer a reminder of what the coppers represent to them. But as she tells him, “We’ve got to live how we can. These days there’s no other way to protect your own.” And as the Detective Sergeant rises to the bait, she tells him, “I’ve got four more sons hanging around this shithole besides the half-wit there,” implying that she’ll set them on him. When he challenges her, she backs down, knowing that she doesn’t want to deal with the full force of the law. But all the same, he’s one more person trying to stop her protecting what little she has, and even if she won’t set her sons on our man, “By Christ, I’ve a mind to.”

It’s a setting that resonates for me; the dark side of the country upbringing I remember. Reading this novel, I saw something of the farms, villages, and small towns I grew up around, but in a way that rendered them in a more hellish fashion than I remembered. Raymond’s Britain is a place gone to seed, its countryside ruined by poverty and neglect, invaded by out-of-place vice, and ground down by hopelessness. This impression is assisted by Raymond’s refusal to properly stamp a time and place upon his world. As novelist-critic Will Self notes in his introduction to my particular edition of the book, Raymond uses a strange mix of slang that sometimes feels deliberately old-fashioned, but in a way that is peculiarly sheered off from reality. The book may have been written in the ’80s, but much of the slang is from Britain’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s, or even earlier. Again, this creates a strangely timeless feel, not marking Raymond’s fictional world as modern or dated, but very much as a time of its own; an England steeped in a unique, skewed, and yet recognizable atmosphere.

And Raymond’s strength lies in atmosphere. The plot is almost incidental--and indeed takes a final turn that is thematically incredible, but verging on the ludicrous--to the evocation of dark feelings of dread recognition brought about by Raymond’s desperate characters and their interactions with the world around them. As a writer of noir, Raymond has very few equals. His atmosphere is unparalleled and his questioning of morals, both at a personal level and on a more global level, is something that many other writers since have seemed unable or unwilling to confront. For this reader, Raymond’s ultimate achievement is to break the mold of mainstream crime writing--British and otherwise--and get down to true questions of ethics, morality, and society without offering patronizing or easy answers. This is crime writing as it should be.

NEXT UP: I Was Dora Suarez (1990)


Evan Lewis said...

Great analysis, Russel. I'm becoming a Cook fan, and have yet to read a word of his work.

Ali Karim said...

Excellent series, and RM's critique excellent am looking forward to the citique of I Was Dora Suarez (1990) by Alexander McCall Smith

Seasons greetings


KIrk Alex said...

Derek Raymond is second to none when it comes to the
noir novel.