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English Noir

BORROWED TIME . . . Between the covers (click for full screen)

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The latest novel from David Mark, Borrowed Time, is seriously dark stuff. There were times when I felt I had entered the nightmare world of distorted humanity, shocking violence and suffering that was distilled into a kind of bleak poetry by Derek Raymond in such masterpieces as I Was Dora Suarez and The Devil’s Home On Leave.

BT coverAdam Nunn is a decent enough fellow, but like all of us, he has made his mistakes. He lives with Zara, a struggling restaurant owner, but has a child of his own, Tilly, who lives with Grace, her mother. Adam has discovered that he is adopted, and has employed a fairly seedy private investigator to try to trace his birth parents.

When the investigator is found dismembered in a spot notorious for being the burial ground of many victims of old Essex gang wars, Adam is about to have an unpleasant surprise. On the (severed) hand of Larry Paris was a scrawled National Insurance number – and it is Adam’s. The police think they have an instant suspect, but after a bruising initial encounter, they realise they have nothing with which to tie Adam to the killing

Adam Nunn lives in Portsmouth. And it is not a particularly fragrant place:

” A city drawn in charcoals and dirt: a place of suet-faced pensioners, of teenagers in baby clothes; of egg-shaped women and puddled men, big middles and conical legs.”

His search for the truth about his identity leads him inexorably to an Essex gangster family, the Jardines. Alison is the daughter of ailing patriarch, Francis. She runs the firm and is not a woman much given to empathy with some of her Essex contemporaries:

“She likes to imagine all those golden-blond, size eight bitches, sobbing as they inject Botox into their foreheads and splurge their life savings on surgeries and rejuvination procedures; their skin puckering, spines beginning to curve, veins rising like lugworms on their shins and the backs of their age-mottled hands.”

Neither is Alison’s son Timmy someone for whom she has a great deal of conventional maternal affection.:

“He’s an ugly, rat-faced little specimen who, at twenty years old, has yet to master the art of having a conversation without thrusting both hands down his jogging trousers and cupping his gonads. She loves him, but not in a way that makes her want to touch him, look at him, or spend time breathing him in.”

Eventually Adam learns who his mother was, but the nature of his conception and the fate of his mother is just the start of the nightmare. The identity of his father is only revealed after a journey through the inferno, the flames of which threaten to consume him along with everyone else he holds close.

David markAlong the way, Mark (right) introduces us to some loathsome individuals who have all played their part in Adam Nunn’s terrible back story. There’s local politician Leo Riley, for example:

“He knows that cash is an aphrodisiac. Power enough to loosen any pair of knickers. And fear a crowbar to stubborn legs.”

Alison’s fearsome minder, Irons, is a creature from hell:

“His face is a butcher’s window, all pink and red, meat and offal: a rag-rug of ruined flesh. he still has to apply lotions five times a day to stop his cheeks tearing open when he laughs. Not that he laughs often. He’s a quiet man. Hasn’t engaged in much chit-chat since the brothers went to work on him with a bayonet, a blowtorch and a claw hammer.”

There is compassion within the pages of Borrowed Time, but it is in short supply.  We don’t just glimpse the worst of people, we come face to face with them, and close enough to smell their rancid graveyard breath. This is a brilliant and sometimes moving piece of storytelling, but within its pages the only redemption comes in death. Borrowed Time is published by Severn House and is out now.

SHAMUS DUST . . . Between the covers

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“Lately, I’d lost the gift. As simple as that. Had reacquainted with nights when sleep stands in shrouds and shifts its weight in corner shadows, unreachable. You hear the rustle of its skirts, wait long hours on the small, brittle rumours of first light, and know that when they finally arrive they will be the sounds that fluting angels make.”

Every so often a book comes along that is so beautifully written and so haunting that a reviewer has to dig deep to even begin to do it justice. Shamus Dust by Janet Roger is one such. The author seems, as they say, to have come from nowhere. No previous books. No hobnobbing on social media. So who is Janet Roger? On her website she says:

Janet Roger was apprehended for the first time at age three, on the lam from a strange new part of town. The desk sergeant looked stern, but found her a candy bar in his pocket anyway. Big mistake. He should have taken away her shoelaces. She’s been on the run ever since.”

Make of that what you will, but she goes on to admit that she is a huge Raymond Chandler fan:

“But what really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice guiding me around the next street corner, and beyond it into a stale apartment block or a down and low bar. He invited me in to look over his shoulder, let me see the highs and the lows, talked me through them and then put me in the seat beside him to drive me home.”

So, what exactly is Shamus Dust? Tribute? Homage? Pastiche? ‘Nod in the direction of..’? ‘Strongly influenced by ..’? Pick your own description, but I know that if I were listening to this as an audio book, narrated in a smoky, world-weary American accent, I could be listening to the master himself. The phrase ‘Often imitated, never bettered’ is an advertising cliché and, of course, Janet Roger doesn’t better Chandler, but she runs him pretty damn close with a taut and poetic style that never fails to shimmer on the page.

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Newman – he’s so self-contained that we never learn his Christian name – fled to to Britain during the Depression, had a ‘good war’ fighting Hitler, and now scratches a living as a PI in a shattered post-war London. It is late December 1947, and the cruelties of a bitter winter are almost as debilitating as Luftwaffe bombs. Newman is hired by a prominent city politician to minimise the reputational damage when a tenant in one of his properties is murdered.

Big mistake. Councillor Drake underestimates Newman’s intelligence and natural scepticism. Our man uncovers a homosexual vice ring, a cabal of opportunists who stand to make millions by rebuilding a shattered city, and an archaeological discovery which could halt their reconstruction bonanza.

There are more murders. The weather worsens. The clock ticks relentlessly towards 1948 as a battered but implacable Newman defies both the conspirators and corrupt coppers to see justice done. Along the way, he is helped – and entranced – by a young doctor, but she seems elusive and beyond his reach. As he goes about his grim business, however, he views London with eyes which may be weary, but still have laughter in them:

“..two paintings in the centre of each of the blank walls, one gray on white, the other white on gray to ring the changes. They might have been Picassos from his plumbing period, or a layout for steam pipes in an igloo; either way, they gave the room the all-round charm of an automated milking parlor.”

“At the street corner there was record store closed for lunch, with a sign over that read, Old Time Favourites, Swing, Hot Jazz, Popular, Classical, Opera and Foreign. The rest it was leaving to the opposition.”

By the end, Newman has played a game of chess in which his board has had most of the key pieces knocked off it by a succession of opponents not necessarily cleverer than he, but certainly with more power and fewer scruples. He survives the endgame – Janet Roger creates a divine metaphor in the final three pages – and his darkness is lifted by an extraordinary act of compassion and generosity to a fellow pawn in the cruel game. I started with Newman’s voice. Let him have the final say as he raises a glass to his lost doctor.

“Waiters ghosted. The company men were long gone. My table was cleared excpt for the glass in my hand. I held it up to the light, turned it round through a hundred shades of red, and wished the doctor all the good luck in the world. Then drank and set the empty glass on its side and called Alekhine over for the check.”

Shamus Dust is published by Matador and is out next month.

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THE SLEEPWALKER . . . Between the covers

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In a fictional world overflowing with disfunctional detectives who happen to be rather good at their jobs, Joseph Knox has raised, or perhaps lowered, the bar considerably with his DC Aidan Waits. We first met Waits in Sirens (2017) and then in The Smiling Man (2018). Now, in The Sleepwalker, Knox takes us on another guided tour of the dystopian underbelly of contemporary Manchester.

TSTogether with his grotesque partner and immediate boss, DI Peter Sutcliffe, Waits always gets the shitty end of the stick. ‘Sutty’ Sutcliffe is, you might say, a good old fashioned copper. Waits goes to meet him in a dingy rock-and-roll boozer:

“Sutty was standing in the corner, explaining something to one of the other customers. To make sure the man was really listening, he’d lifted him off the ground by his ears and begun banging his head into the wall to the beat of the drum.

He let the smile slide, dramatically, off his face when he saw me.

‘Oh’, he said, over the music. ‘It’s the great depression. Shouldn’t you be queuing up for a loaf of bread instead of buying beer?’ “

Waits and Sutcliffe have been assigned to a Death Watch. In hospital, a notorious serial killer nicknamed The Sleepwalker because of the bizarre circumstances of his arrest, is dying of cancer. Years ago, he was convicted of slaughtering a family – wife and children – and the older daughter’s body has never been found. In the faint hope that Martin Wick’s dying breath will reveal the final resting place of twelve year-old Lizzie Moore – a sombre echo of the misplaced faith that believed Ian Brady would finally say where he had buried Keith Bennett – Waits and Sutcliffe sit by the dying man’s bedside, their ears close to whatever utterance escapes his shriveled lips.

Why is Aidan Waits such a tortured character? Well, how long have you got? His childhood was loveless and chaotic, and spent largely in institutions where he rubbed shoulders with trainee failures, malcontents and killers. Echoing Nietzsche’s chilling remarks about the moral abyss, Waits has, more recently, gazed too long into a chasm inhabited by a repellent Manchester crime lord called Zane Carver. Carver has fed Waits’s drug habit, and the two have fought over women. Carver has a particular talent with women:

“Zain Carver was a magician when it came to ruining women’s lives.

He surrounded himself with these beautiful assistants and then delighted in sawing them up, making them disappear. Sometimes a new girl on his arm might end up on the game, or in hospital, or back with her parents feeling five years older, a permanent faraway look in her eyes.”

As distinctive as Knox is as a stylist, and as much as he is a master of the inky black metaphor, he has a tale to tell and a plot to spin. The sepulchral calm of Martin Wick’s closely guarded hospital room is shattered by a savage attack which Waits survives, but puts him at the head of the queue as the police and the gutter press search for scapegoats. With Carver having decided to exact revenge on Waits by donning his black cap and pronounced the death sentence, Waits is on the run both from the gangster and, no less implacably, his politically motivated senior officers, but he keeps them at bay. He discovers faint-but-fatal fault lines in the original case against Martin Wicks, and finds that both Kevin Blake, the detective who brought Wicks to justice, and Frank Moore, the father of the murdered children, still have songs to sing.

KnoxJoseph Knox writes like an angel. Possibly an Angel of Death, but he grasps the spluttering torch of English Noir once carried by such writers as Derek Raymond, and runs with such vigour that the flame burns brightly once again. He is not without humour, and there are many – if unrepeatable – gags exchanged between the cynical cops and their low-life prey. The politically correct nature of modern policing doesn’t escape his attention, either:

“The conference space and interview rooms had a bland, mass-produced, modern aesthetic. If Hitler’s bunker had been designed by Travelodge, it couldn’t have communicated quiet despair any more effectively.”

 No-one who has had the misfortune to require A & E treatment on any given weekend evening – in Manchester, Middlesborough, Maidenhead or Milton Keynes – will be unfamiliar with this baleful description, as Waits searches for a suspect:

“I looked about me. Bloodshed, fist-fights and stab wounds. Confused, stunned people, drunk, on drugs, with life-altering injuries. Stick-thin single mothers on food bank diets, with morbidly obese babies.”

Knox has his grim fun with a Manchester police force that is barely honest, city down-and-outs who have lost most of the trappings of humanity, and an infestation of tattooed, Spice-addicted thugs straight from Central Casting – with Hieronymus Bosch as the agency’s head of HR. He also leaves us with a delightfully enigmatic final few pages. The Sleepwalker is published by Doubleday and will be on the shelves from 11th July

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS … Getting Carter

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GC backI’ve been waiting for this one! Just published by No Exit Press is a new study of the doomed genius, Ted Lewis. Written by Nick Triplow, it carries the blurb:

“A perceptive and detailed study of one of the most
important writers you’ve never heard of.”

 While that may be true of younger or more casual crime fiction fans, it is certainly not the case with old sweats such as myself. Like thousands more, I was drawn to Ted Lewis by the iconic 1971 film adaption of of his most famous novel, which was first published in 1970 with the title Jack’s Return Home.

Nick Triplow is himself a noir novelist, but thankfully has not followed Lewis in his lifestyle Triplowchoices. Lewis suffered a downward spiral involving alcoholism and family breakdown. He died in 1982, just forty two years old. Triplow (right) has emulated his subject in one regard, however, as he now lives in Barton on Humber, where Lewis went to school. Ted Lewis’s first mentor was an English teacher called Henry Treece, about whom you can read a little more in this short feature. 

A full review of Getting Carter will be posted soon, and it will be flagged up on the Fully Booked Twitter page.  The book is now available both in hardback and as a Kindle.

 

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I WAS DORA SUAREZ … Derek Raymond

There can be few books in print which have explored the depths of human criminal depravity with such forensic and painful detail as this book by the acknowledge master of English Noir. The un-named detective sergeant who seeks revenge for a murdered prostitute takes us to places that those who have read the book will have seared on their imagination as long as they have life and breath.

Musicians Terry Edwards and James Johnston – Gallon Drunk – persuaded Raymond to read extracts of his corrosive 1993 novel, while they provided a haunting soundtrack. With the permission of Edwards and Johnston – sadly, Raymond is long gone – here is part of that original recording. Click on the image of Derek Raymond to watch the video.

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SIRENS . . . Between the covers

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This debut novel from Joseph Knox
is a dark and existential policier set in a modern Manchester where the neon lights of drug fuelled night clubs cast their garish glow over abandoned nineteenth century warehouses flanking polluted rivers which once powered the cotton mills that made the city great. Out in the suburbs, in houses built for long dead mill-owners, girls barely past their GCSEs jostle each other to get the attention of the organised crime barons who control the flow of narcotics and young flesh.

Aidan Waits is a young policeman who has a liking for pharmaceutical products that anaesthetize him from life. All is well until he is snared in a sting. He is caught sampling marching powder from the police evidence locker, and he is, as they say, bang to rights. He is given a grim choice by his boss. Option one is that his corruption is made public, but he will then be suspended and disappear into the darkness of the Manchester night. Beneath this façade, however, he will actually be working to bring down one of the most dangerous and powerful of the gang bosses. Option two is similar, except that he will be hauled through the courts and given serious jail time. And we all know what happens to policemen when they are thrown into prison.

sirensSo, Waits plays a dangerous double game which involves being undercover yet in full view. This paradox is essential. Obviously drug lord Zain Carver will know that Waits is a suspended copper; the deception will only work if Waits can convince the gangster that he is prepared to damage his former employers with leaked information. It requires no acting ability whatsoever for Waits to appear dissolute, addicted and troubled – that is his normal persona. However, a big problem looms. A rich and influential Member of Parliament has “lost” his teenage daughter. Isabelle Rossitter is one of the satellites fizzing around the planet Carver. Daddy is desperate to get her back, and Waits is given the task.

To say that Waits is a complex character is an understatement to rival Laurence Oates’ gentle assertion that he was “just going outside, and may be some time.” Waits’ childhood is never far from his thoughts, and those thoughts are not positive. He and his little sister were effectively abandoned by a mother who simply didn’t want them. Footsteps echoing along the cold and love starved corridors of institutional homes still ring in his ears, and the distant rejection isn’t just a scar – it is an open wound.

When a grossly polluted brick of heroin cuts a fatal swathe through a teenage party, the result is every bit as deadly as an American High School shooting. In consequence, Waits is cut adrift by both his police handler and his underworld connections. Death stalks his every move, and he finds himself one of the few remaining pieces on the board in a deadly endgame. Waits lurches back and forth through a nightmare world of abusive sex, wasted lives, casual violence and police corruption. The novel scarcely ever emerges from the flickering strobe-lit decadence of the Manchester night. There are times when Knox writes with the kind of savage poetry that reminded me very much of the great Derek Raymond.

“ The daylight was awful. It floodlit the insane, the terminally ill, turned loose again for the day, laughing and crying and pissing their pants through the streets. It was like the lights going up at last orders, turning the women from beautiful to plain, exposing the men for what they all are at their worst. Ugly, identical.”

This is a brutal, clever and beautifully written book. Knox hands Waits a guttering candle of compassion, and he manages to keep it alight despite gusts of wind that carry the reek of decay, hatred, perversion and lust. It is scarcely credible that this is a debut novel. Knox has penned a black tale which is certainly not a comfort read. There are passages which made me physically wince, but the author has the confidence to give us an ending, once the mayhem has died down, which is both bitter-sweet and poignant. As Milton wrote, at the conclusion of Samson Agonistes:

“His servants he with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event:
With peace and consolation hath dismist,
And calm of mind all passion spent.”

Sirens is published by Doubleday, and will be available on 12th January

HOUSE OF BONES … Between the covers

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Imagine, if you will, a roomful of marketing executives, PR gurus and recruitment consultants all clustered round a flip chart. Too terrible to contemplate already? Bear with me, as this only imaginary. Their task? To come up with crime fiction’s next female superstar private investigator. A Jack Reacher in a skirt, a John Rebus in a Kylie Jenner-endorsed little black dress, maybe? Never in all their hours of creative brainstorming would they have come up with Annie Hauxwell’s Catherine Berlin. She is as cranky as hell, rather bedraggled, and just a few months short of her concessionary bus pass. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. She is an addict – her drug of choice, or perhaps necessity, is heroin, but she will make serious inroads into a bottle of Talisker if the China White is not available. Or – and this is in extremis – a few codeine will have to do.

house-of-bonesIt’s always fun to come late to an established series that has many established followers, if only to see what all the fuss is about. I had covered Catherine Berlin in writing brief news grabs, but House of Bones was to be my first proper read. There is a wonderfully funereal atmosphere throughout the book. Sometimes this is literal, as at the beginning:

 “Catherine Berlin followed a hearse through the grand arch of the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium. She wondered how long it would be before she passed under it feet first.”

One of the corpses in the narrative – and there are several – is found in the crypt of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and later in the novel Berlin gatecrashes a society funeral and allows her few remaining heart strings to be tugged when she hears the evocative words of her mother’s favourite hymn:

“Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.”

 The dark, end-of-days mood of the book is underlined by the dismal weather. I was reminded of the old soldiers’ song from The Great War, sung to the tune of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.’ They sang:

“Raining, raining, raining: always bloody well raining:
Raining all the morning, and raining all the night.”

Hauxwell gives us London rain, cold, dispiriting, grey and naggingly pervasive. She also gives us Hong Kong rain, which is hot, loud and has the intensity of special effects in a disaster movie. Berlin’s London milieu is bleak. She treads the streets of Limehouse, Wapping, and Leyton. These eastern parts have modern millionaire housing developments and expensively imagined conversions of a Victorian past, but that past is never far away, like a cold sore disguised with cosmetics. The river is also a baleful presence in what becomes a nightmarish environment.

Berlin is hired by Burghley LLP:

“ a boutique outfit established by spooks and former Whitehall types. They offered discreet investigative and intelligence services. Deep pockets essential.”

Her task? To investigate the strange case of a teenage boy who has been arrested for assault. He is Chinese, and attends an exclusive public school. All fees are provided by an apparently charitable organisation which takes Chinese orphans and gives them a sociological blood transfusion, the plasma being supplied by the British aristocracy. The problem is, though, Philip Chen’s alleged victim has disappeared, and only exists on grainy footage from a CCTV camera. Who is he? Where is he? What provoked the violent assault?

Berlin rapidly becomes aware that Philip’s most visible patron is a prodigiously wealthy and well connected member of the House of Lords, Jack Haileybury. He sits, spiderlike, in a web of his own creation, which is actually a converted warehouse in Wapping. He has expensive tastes, both in narcotics, oak-aged single malt whisky and, more troubling, teenage boys.

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Sometimes aided and sometimes hindered by a manic and rather disturbed policeman, DC Terence Bryant, Berlin hacks her way through the long grass of the British establishment to uncover an abomination which dwarfs some of the recent real-life exposures of what celebrities get up to. She travels to Hong Kong, and then mainland China in pursuit of the truth, but when she finally has it, she is made to wish she had looked the other way. The title? It becomes horribly appropriate only in the last few pages of the novel, but to say more would be to spoil your experience of Annie Hauxwell’s dark and compelling piece of English Noir.

House Of Bones is available in Kindle or as a paperback.

THE DEVIL’S HOME ON LEAVE

DEREK RAYMOND, aka Robert Cook was a writer who took the humble police procedural out for a quiet drink, spiked the glass of shandy, and then led the hapless victim through a dark night of debasement and unimaginable horror. This journey into hell only ends when there is no sample of man’s beastliness left untasted, and no part of the soul unraked by the sharpest of literary claws.

Cook was born in 1931 to a wealthy family, and went on to be perhaps the most unlikely alumni of England’s most celebrated school – Eton College. A typical Old Etonian Cook was most certainly not. A series of jobs, girlfriends and wives left him unfulfilled until in his fifties, he found the literary spark which set off a fire which was to burn white hot until his death in 1994.

His casual familiarity with the criminal underworld of London during the heyday of the Kray twins left him under no illusion about the black heart of the real criminal, and the ambivalent attitude of many of the police officers whose job it was to hunt down the law-breakers.

The core of his work is the series of books which have come to be known as The Factory Novels. ‘The Factory’ is a fictional London police station in the real-life Soho thoroughfare of Poland Street. The protagonist is an unnamed copper who, when not stewing in his own self-loathing, is regarded with suspicion by his superiors. He is tolerated for the hard edge of his hatred for criminals, but will never be found with his colleagues in the pub on a Friday night after work. He works for department A14  which is very much the Cinderella of the Metropolitan Police – The Department of Unexplained Deaths.

“To work in A14 is to see everything that no one ever sees: the violence, misery and despair, the immeasurable distance in the mind of a human being that knows nothing but suffering between its dreams and its death.”(IWDS, p 176)

We are left to imagine what he looks like. He never uses violence as a matter of habit, but his inner rage fuels a temper which can destroy those who are unwise enough to provoke him. Why is he so bitter, so angry, so disgusted? Of himself, he says:

“I’m a solitary man. Sometimes, mind, there’s happiness in solitude, still, it helps to talk to other people sometimes and  dig back together to a time when people felt that the past mattered and something good might happen in the future. But when I open the next door I’m sent to and find the dead inside, overturned bottles and tables, bloody, dishonoured, defamed people lying there, I sometimes accept that dreaming and hoping the way I do is absurd.” (DMU, p 94)

Throughout the narrative we are reminded of the defining series of way-points in his life. A wife whose mental stability has been rocked, perhaps by his own obsessional desire to do his job properly. A young daughter whose short life ended in tragedy. Now, the wife is as lost to him as the daughter, the woman to some kind of institutional care, the child to a cheap coffin in a London cemetery.

THE FACTORY

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The road constantly traveled by The Unnamed Sergeant is the road of compassion. It is not the kind of compassion that involves a friendly arm around the shoulder, or a comforting word. Rather it is a deep bonding with the dead, and a sanctifying of the victim, be it a battered corpse or even a parcel of body parts. Then, it is the blind fury of a man who will bring down the murderer using official methods first, but if they fail, then by any means available.

In He Died With His Eyes Open (1984) the principle victim is Staniland, a weak fellow with a poetic streak. He records a series of audio tapes as his life descends into turmoil, and after his death, the tapes provide a chilling backdrop to the sergeant’s search for the killers. The Sergeant’s visceral connection with the dead man is expressed thus:

“For me, Staniland wasn’t just another body in the morgue. Through his writing and his cassettes he was still alive as far as I was concerned. I had started to think, dream, almost be Staniland by proxy ….”

Some of Staniland’s tortured musings, in particular those which recount his time in rural France, are strongly autobiographical, as they echo Raymond’s own time working in an isolated village near Montpelier. Despite his weary air of omniscience, the sergeant’s judgments are not infallible, and by the end of the book his very human weakness is almost his undoing.

1985 saw the publication of The Devil’s Home On Leave which was about as close as Raymond came to a standard police thriller. As the Sergeant investigates a case which begins with body parts found in a riverside warehouse, his probings earn him a shot across his bows from his superiors. The sides of noses are tapped, and meaningful glances shot in his direction, but the knowledge that the case has its roots in corruption in very high places only serves as a spur.

Raymond’s anguished love affair with the sheer mundanity of the evil he imagined lurking in drab London streets didn’t prevent him from taking the chance to send The Sergeant elsewhere. In How The Dead Live (1986) our man goes rural, as he visits the village of Thornhill to investigate the missing wife of a doctor. Raymond’s imagination is as blackly perceptive as ever, but he can’t resist his own take on the well-worn crime fiction trope of the mysterious and gloomy country house, with its hidden secrets. One note of interest. A 2007 American edition of the novel by Serpent’s Tail included an introduction by Will Self, who had borrowed the title for a book of his own, published in 2000.

I Was Dora Suarez will, for reasons which will become clear, be dealt with separately. The final Factory Novel, Dead Man Upright, was to be published in 1993, shortly before Raymond’s death from cancer. A former colleague of The Sergeant has been kicked off the force for his fondness of the bottle, but he convinces his erstwhile chum that the man on the top floor above his flat is responsible for the deaths of a succession of women. This is not so much a hunt for a killer, as it is fairly clear from early on that Jidney, the man upstairs, is as guilty as sin, but rather an examination of the darkest recesses of a murderer’s mind. Jidney describes the last moments of one of his victims, Daphne Hayhoe.

Our last moments were sad. It was death in slow motion, explained step by step; it was the first time I had explored this avenue so thoroughly, and the extraordinary restraint I had to exercise increased my pleasure enormously. I got her to undress, and lie down on the floor, naked, whereupon I tied her up. Then a remarkable thing happened. As she was not in her first youth, her singing voice was not very good, being cracked and hoarse with fear, too, naturally, but as I came over to her with strangling wire and a great hard-on, she closed her eyes with wrinkled lids, and sang out firmly:

‘Christians with a gladsome mind,
Praise The Lord for He is kind,
And His mercies shall endure,
Ever faithful, ever sure.’”

APOTHEOSIS

I Was Dora Suarez

This is Derek Raymond’s masterpiece. In the decades since its publication in 1990, it has shocked, horrified, inspired and gripped readers with a grim fascination. Were it a new novel accepted by a modern publisher, it is mildly entertaining to imagine the torments that would be suffered by the publicity team handed the poison chalice of selling it to daytime TV book clubs and the bulk buyers for ASDA and TESCO book racks.

The plot and characters are initially straightforward. Dora Suarez is a prostitute. She is outwardly beautiful, but gravely ill with the diseases which are an occupational hazard of her calling. She has been befriended by a gentle old woman, Betty Carstairs, who takes a maternal and non judgmental interest in the younger woman. Both meet their death at the hands of Tony Spavento, a killer whose depravity and violence towards himself and his victims is unspeakable and indescribable. Except that Derek Raymond does both. The Sergeant hunts down Spavento, and on the way destroys some of the men who have brutalised Dora.

Dickens, and other nineteenth century masters, loved to give characters names which had an immediate resonance. Uriah Heap, Ebenezer Scrooge, Obadiah Slope and Damon Wildeve are never going to be anything other than villains, and Raymond follows the same path with Tony Spavento. Even speaking the syllables has a bitter sibilance. But poor Betty Carstairs. A name from the 1930s and 40s. The Home Service on the wireless. Golden days of youth, and the shabby gentility of old age, contrasting so beautifully with the exotic Hispanic vowels as we say, “Dora Suarez ….. Dora Suarez.”

When The Sergeant finds the dead women, he is bitter about Betty Carstairs, and imagines the fate of her corpse.

“…and that was the squalid and miserable end of Betty Carstairs. She was to pass later, after the autopsy, through the diesel flames of a London cemetery in a recuperable coffin, a graven angel passing through a moment of fire, at a price arranged on the cheap by her great-nephew Valerian who knew a few people, and who, having been the flat with a mate of his …..took such pickings from it as he could down to Chelsea in two of her suitcases and got pissed on the proceeds.”

But his weary cynicism over Betty’s demise is nothing compared to the white hot flame of his determination to avenge Dora’s death.

“It was then, and only then, that I understood what it really meant, the feeling of people’s rightful fury and despair, and it came with my desire to bend over Suarez and whisper, ‘It’s all right, darling, don’t worry, everything will be alright, I’m here now, it’ll be alright now’ – and the feeling was so strong in me that I knelt and kissed her short black hair which still smelled of the apple-flavoured shampoo she had washed it with last night, only now the hair was rank, matted with blood, stiff and cold.”

The Sergeant’s mission to destroy Tony Spavento plays out to its corruscating and brutal climax, but not before Raymond has taken us to the very depths of human vileness. We can recover. It is, after all, only a book. We must imagine that The Sergeant, however, could never be the same again. Neither, it seems, was Raymond. He said that writing the book changed his life:

“Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead……I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up – if you do come up. It’s like working in a mine; you hope that hands you can’t see know what they’re doing and will pull you through. I know I wondered half way through Suarez if I would get through – I mean, if my reason would get through. For the trouble with an experience like Suarez is that you become what you’re writing, passing like Alice through the language into the situation.”

The Factory novels, and Derek Raymond’s other works, are available on his Amazon page.

IWDS

 

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