The Independent ‘Midweek’ magazine, August 13 1992
It’s only a short step from the playing fields of Eton to the killing fields of London. Nicky Charlish meets shadowy crime writer Derek Raymond
“The hardest part with these memoirs is the effort to be honest – there is too great a divergence between my relatively unstained thinking, ideas and emotions, and my real treason, flight and the squalid, cowardly and ugly things I did to people in moments of panic or rage.”
It’s rare for the writer of an autobiography to declare his or her innermost feelings so openly. But in-your-face honesty has always been the hallmark of writer Robin Cook. You haven’t heard of him? That’s not surprising. On the continent he’s big, but in his native land – where he writes under the pen-name Derek Raymond – he doesn’t go down too well with the literary establishment. He shows the red meat of crime a little too strongly for some people’s taste. And his autobiography The Hidden Files, published on 27 August, won’t improve his standing in polite bookish society.
Upsetting the establishment is not a new pastime for Cook. He was born into a wealthy family in 1931, and had everything money could buy – except affection. “I hated my parents, and my parents hated me. I felt imprisoned by people I hated and didn’t trust, and it was mutual. I thought ‘Right, if you don’t trust me, I’ll give you good reason not to.’”
So it’s not surprising that after a public school education (at Eton) and national service in the Army (in charge of lavatory cleaning in a Tank Regiment camp) he embarked upon a spectacular form of rebellion – crime. But there was another motive besides revolt. Cook wished to be a poet, and had sent some of his writing to the poet Stephen Spender. “He said I had a lot of talent,” recalls Cook, “but he said I must find something to write about. I took action that day, and decided to go outdoors and do some living. And I never stopped – all thanks to Stephen Spender.”
Cook spent his twenties running car and tape-recorder scams in Spain and hiding out in France. After a short spell in America he returned to London in 1960 and fronted dodgy property companies for notorious gangland figure Charles Da Silva. He hosted illegal gambling sessions in the bohemian Chelsea of the era, held 24-hour parties (Jeffrey Bernard was one of his lodgers) and made headlines in the summer of 1960 when he was involved in a scam in Amsterdam concerning “stolen” paintings – a scam which went horribly wrong. The Dutch police interrogated him for 80 hours, and then the English police put him through another 17-hour all-night grilling. His fast talking, well-spoken tongue kept him out of gaol.
Down but not out, Cook crystallised his wild years into his first novel, published in 1962, The Crust On Its Uppers. The action, which swings giddily between London, Geneva and Frankfurt, centres on attempts by three young men (who bear more than a passing resemblance to Cook and two of his Chelsea companions) to smuggle counterfeit money into Britain. But it’s also highly atmospheric, capturing that strange period when London had finally awoken from its post-war doldrums, but hadn’t yet erupted into the swinging Sixties; the world of Rachman and Profumo, of nightclubs where celebrities and politicians rubbed shoulders with gangsters. And where smart operators like Cook were self-styled ‘morries’, looking down on the efforts of ‘the slag’: small-time, ineffectual criminals and loungers.
In the flower power decade, Cook’s further novels went against the grain of peace n’ love. Having titles such as The Tenants of Dirt Street and The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip, they dealt with the flotsam of polite society gone wrong – upper-class people making their way as toyboys, tarts, porn merchants, even as neo-fascists – and gained him a cult following that the literary establishment, unsurprisingly, tried to ignore. Cook was seen as a class traitor for picking up social stones that others felt were best left unturned and suffered the customary fate of bearers of unwelcome news. In the early Seventies, Cook worked for a time as a London mini-cab driver, then moved on to a tumbledown French farmhouse in Aveyron. He didn’t have a penny, and he needed to win the trust of the locals, not noted for their love of foreigners.
“I took any work I could get. I was a roofer, a cab-driver, I worked in the vineyards. But I had to work hard, and at the end of the day I was fucked. I couldn’t do any writing.” But amidst the repetitive work, plots fizzed and crackled – and bore fruit in 1984, with the publication of his first detective novel He Died With His Eyes Open. In the meantime, another Robin Cook had turned up – the author of medical schlockbusters such as Coma. So our Cook started to write for English-speaking readers under the pen-name Derek Raymond.
He Died was the first in his Factory series of novels (‘Factory’ is the police/criminal slang term for a police station). Set in the parts of London the tourist never visits – such as Arnos Grove, Lewisham, Acton – they feature a nameless, hardboiled detective-sergeant working in a section called Unexplained Deaths, who has a single-minded desire to track down killers. Like his creator, this copper is no respector of rank. The novels are pacy and are peopled with characters, not standard thriller cardboard cut-outs. This is not the world of loveable rogues. Like Martin Amis, Cook deals with the moral underbelly of the capital, getting inside the skin and skull of both victim and murderer.
His latest in the series has the intriguing title I Was Dora Suarez. But it’s a trip round hell that would have William Burroughs looking for the emergency exit after the first few pages. It tells the story of a young woman – the Suarez of the title – who is literally murdered twice over and yet, through her written recollections, is more alive than the living characters.
Every one of Cook’s novels is a murderous journey into his own life. Suarez was such a searing interior journey that he didn’t know if he’d survive writing it with his reason intact. He wrote it as a moral story, an atonement for the years when he had harmed people by dishonesty or indifference.
“Suarez was a turning point for me.” Cook explains. “Not just in my life as a writer, but for my life altogether.” And now The Hidden Files has come along. But don’t be put off by the autobiography label, with its very male image of back-slapping anecdotes recollected in tranquillity. It seems that he works outwards from his innermost emotions and perceptions, and explains them from episodes in his own life. “That’s right, that’s right,” he agrees. “That was the natural way that suggested itself.”
The book also deals with his views on the function of crime writing, or what he calls The Black Novel – that’s any writing that deals with the dark side of humanity. But doesn’t he, perhaps, live off crime by his writing? “No,” he replies firmly. “If I wanted to do that, I would write in a much more commercial way, and the treat the subject in a far more flamboyant style.”
Cook has never been interested in the trappings of bestsellerdom, and having just enough money to get by suits him. You get the feeling that he’s much more at home in his outfit of black leather jacket, grey Levis and battered beret than the well-cut suits and flash cars that he was seen in during his days as a young crook-about-town. Even then he only wore his Old Etonian tie when out to impress a gullible punter.
But plenty of straight dosh is coming his way. The Crust On Its Uppers is being republished to coincide with The Hidden Files and another Factory novel called Dead Men Upright – about serial killers – is on its way. This autumn he’ll be reminiscing about the old days in a Channel 4 programme along with Tony Lambrianou, a one-time Kray minder jailed for his role in the murder of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie back in the Sixties. A series for the Beeb based on the Factory books should be on our screens next year. It’s all just as well for Cook. “Writing is my life. If I wasn’t a writer I wouldn’t be anything.”
Just as well for us that he’s very much a writer, then. Fine, elegant, unvarnished truth, and a thinking copper who gets results. Can’t get a better deal than that, Morrie.