Friday, January 15, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“Dead Man Upright,” by Derek Raymond

(Editor’s note: This is the 77th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. It is also the fifth and concluding entry in a special miniseries honoring the Factory novels penned by British writer Derek Raymond [aka Robin Cook]. Today The Rap Sheet welcomes Ray Banks, the author of 2009’s Beast of Burden and the forthcoming U.S. edition of No More Heroes, both of which star Manchester ex-con-turned-private eye Cal Innes. Banks makes the case for favorable recognition of Raymond’s last Factory book, Dead Man Upright.)

There’s definitely a touch of the orphan about Dead Man Upright (1993). Not only is it the final novel of Derek Raymond’s Factory quintet, but it’s also the last book that would see print before the author’s death in 1994. In addition to this, thanks to a late-career publisher switch precipitated by the appearance of I Was Dora Suarez and its subsequent reception, Dead Man Upright was released by Time Warner and was, along with Raymond’s autobiography, Hidden Files (1992), and his posthumous novel, Not Till the Red Fog Rises (1994), missing from the recent Serpent’s Tail backlist reissue. Furthermore, Dead Man Upright has a tendency to be forgotten simply because it appears as an anticlimax to the Factory series after what is generally seen as a concentration of Raymond’s themes in its immediate predecessor, Dora Suarez.

To a certain extent, that’s true. After the histrionic depravity of Dora, even the goriest of murders--and the deaths in Dead Man Upright are hardly bloodless--is going to seem cozy in comparison. Similarly, the obsessive emotional attachment between the nameless Detective Sergeant and the dead Spanish prostitute make the examination of the killing mind in Dead Man Upright seem downright chilly. But this examination is a natural follow-up to Dora Suarez, and in it Raymond takes a new direction, finally eschewing the connection with the victim that defined a majority of his previous series work. Indeed, some of the victims here appear almost complicit in their own deaths, or else provide a reflection of the murderer’s fantasies. Because while Raymond briefly examined the banality of psychosis in The Devil’s Home on Leave, Dead Man Upright is the only novel in this series that actively surrenders itself to the killer’s mindset.

The killer in question is Ronald Jidney, self-styled artist and slaughterer of single middle-aged women. His victims have plenty in the bank, but he’s not all that interested in money, because Jidney is the eponymous dead man, a quintessential Raymond psychopath whose eyes are polished mirrors set in a mask of practiced mediocrity. He prides himself on having learned the necessary “stereotyped views ... on art, death and relationships” with which he ensnares his victims, and yet revels in his apparent superiority:
As he had often said to Flora, and before her to Anna, Mandy Cronin, Judith Parkes and others, one of the greatest attributes of a god is that he condescends to resemble man. Nothing could take this rapture from him--he soared at the topmost flight of existence, he was a super-being.
I say apparent because Raymond is careful to counter Jidney’s bravado, not least when Jidney is apprehended. Following his arrest are 50 pages of what is essentially a murderer’s monologue, albeit one filtered through interrogation and prison correspondence. Raymond ostensibly gives Jidney the same confessional outlet he previously gave his victims. Where this differs is the commentary on this confession by the sergeant and the visiting lecturer (who happens to be an expert on serial-killer profiling), both men chipping in with either reaction or confirmation, leading to an overall portrait of the serial killer as ego. Far from being the attractive pantomime villain of Hannibal Lecter, Jidney is just another abused, strange little man with delusions of grandeur.

Where Dead Man Upright falters is in its procedure. For all Raymond’s virtues as a writer, he was never a particularly adept plotter, and some key plot points in this tale ring hollow. The discovery of a videotape at a stage where most of the evidence is conjecture is remarkably handy, and the clue that leads to the location of Jidney’s “murder vault” requires a suspension of disbelief that only a writer like Raymond (with that much literary good will in the bank) can afford.

But then, you don’t read Raymond for the realism, you read him for his worldview, and that worldview is shot through with a Jacobean sense of moral decay. Webster’s “possession by death” is something that also afflicts Raymond, and his portrait of London is one that reeks of the corrupt and the violated. Although in Dead Man Upright the sergeant’s world is finally opened up into one that involves colleagues who aren’t deliberately obstructive (Chief Inspector Bowman) or intangible (The Voice), the cops of the A14--the Metropolitan Police’s Department of Unexplained Deaths--aren’t that much different from the sergeant. They’ve all been irrevocably scarred by the job. One of them has been fired for alcoholism (which is something of an achievement in a department that appears to be permanently half-cut), another paralyzed after a shotgun blast to the spine. The others have dialogue that is bitterly spiced, realistic patois quickly veering into the non-sequitur of Beckettian vaudeville.

This disintegration is natural. These are, after all, the bastions of law and order in a city that appears to be eating itself alive. Throughout the book, events take place that cement London’s twisted psychogeography: a man tries to kill himself by jumping off a tower block and ends up being the victim of a freak decapitation; a family man, recently made redundant, turns on that family with a Webley pistol; and when salvation appears on the Tube, everyone squirms in their seat apart from our nameless Detective Sergeant, who thinks it takes balls to preach the gospel.

The acknowledgment is enough to lift the Factory novels from an otherwise unremittingly bleak outlook. What is often forgotten about Raymond’s work is that glimmer of hope, that belief in humanity which contrasts sharply with the inherent fascism that Jidney attributes to himself. The detective believes that we are not Jidney and his kind, because we recognize our own darkness and fight against it. We may struggle to connect with other human beings, just as the detective struggles to save his long-dead daughter in the closing lines of the book:
All at once I am speeding after Dahlia, who is wobbling down our front path on her bike. Next week, she’ll be nine. I am rushing after her with my arms open and calling out: ‘I love you! I love you!’

But she is always just out of reach.
The point is, though, that we do struggle. And that, in the end, is good enough, and it’s what keeps us from becoming those
dead men upright.


Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this series!

I think I saw the executor of Raymond's estate check in here. For god's sake, man, if you have some more photos of Raymond, put them on the Net for us bloggers to use. It's been hell finding an image of him to post in my own posts linking to these!

Seth Harwood said...

Is that a nipple on the cover?

J. Kingston Pierce said...

You betcha, Seth. And a mighty beautiful cover it is.