Sunday, June 15, 2014

He Died With His Eyes Open - Derek Raymond

Technically this is a police procedural, but the unnamed protagonist in the first of the Factory series has more in common with a classic hardboiled private detective. He works alone, on cases nobody else cares about. He is dedicated to his job because he thinks it matters when somebody is murdered, even though no-one else gives a damn. It's his one redeeming feature as he drinks his way through the sleazy underbelly of London.

And London is important. He couldn't really be a private detective, because the UK doesn't have real private detectives, not in this mold. But London is one of the trio of voices in this book, each more damned than the last. The unnamed detective is a no good piece-of-shit, lacking personal or proffesional ambition, who happens to think that the cases referred to the Department for Unexplained Deaths (ie. cases not worth devoting serious resources to) might just matter, even if only to him and the dead man. Nobody else who knew the corpse in life expresses much regret at his death. But London, London is also a no good piece-of-shit town. London has a voice just as vivid, and it's a voice which damns its occupants precisely because it doesn't care. London prefers to leave its inhabitants to their own miserable company. An uncaring and neglectful father who watches its children swirl down the drain without lifting a finger, tainting the lives of everybody who breathes its poisonous air, watching them piss their lives away in desperate alcoholic fugs, or drown in the backstreet violence of its dingy alleyways.

Derek Raymond has been called the Godfather of British noir or somesuch, and I don't remember reading any older British fiction this dark. The thing that really drags this book into the depths is the third voice. In a trick he would repeat throughout the Factory series, the voice of the dead man is given equal weight to the city and the detective. As the policeman listens to a number of tapes the victim recorded before his grisly and brutal murder, we are dragged into both the life and death of a man who was himself desperate and damned. He is a failure, a miserable drunk abandoned by his family and everything he might once have wanted to live for. As he narrates his movement towards death and the detective sleazes his way deeper into the dead man's story, the true loneliness at the heart of the existence of each is played out both in the present and the past. The detective insinuates his way into the dead man's life, into his bed, and ultimately into a bizarre and tortuous meta-sacrifice, almost a ritual claiming of equality between the dead and the damned of a heartless city awash with alcohol and violence.

Derek Raymond carried a notion of the Black Novel, which would address: 

‘the question of turning a small, frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle – the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfulfillable, and where defeat is certain.' 

This quote seems to encapsulate the black heart of noir and few writers have come as close to actualising such a book as Raymond does here. An incredible novel, as dark as any I've yet come across. If you like noir then read this book, because this is it.

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