Loitering with intent

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.

Derek Raymond’s South Circular

A personal tribute to the urban commentary of Robin Cook by Andrew Stevens (site administrator)

I knocked at a second-floor flat in a dreary house, one of two hundred in a dreary Catford street.
After a while I heard steps the other side of the door.  ‘McGruder?’
‘Who’s that?’ said a man’s voice. ‘Who wants him?’
‘I do,’ I said. ‘Open up.  Police.’

So begins The Devil’s Home on Leave, the second in the Factory cycle of novels which established Robin Cook’s literary reputation as our finest noir writer, after a decade plus of self-imposed exile in the French vineyards.  For all the glory heaped on I Was Dora Suarez, its own unshakable reputation (“legendarily emetic” says Will Self) providing the non-acquainted with a ready peg on which to base their own knowledge of the book, The Devil’s Home on Leave could be viewed on a par for unsettling the reader, with its opening unflinching recollection of Fred Paolacci’s dismemberment of and intercourse with (note the order) his 10-year old daughter.  Robin Cook’s gift for chronicling London lowlife, like a well-thumbed A-Z, is an assured legacy (forget the straitjacket of genre, Cook is up there with Hamilton and Gissing) but this gave me pause for thought, why South London? All authors need a hinterland and while Cook was resolutely Sohemian in his drinking habits (the eponymous Factory being located on Poland Street, now the edge of the gay district where bear pubs meet Oxford Street’s visa scam language schools), South London effectively becomes the dumping ground for bodies or the bolthole of murderers in the Factory novels.

I first came across Cook’s novels (the Factory cycle as Derek Raymond before the lesser-known sixties ones) at the cusp of the millennium, while living in the pre-gentrified industrial estated part of Deptford-Greenwich, dependent on long gone second hand booksellers for my reading habits.  He Died With His Eyes Open, a yellowing cover with ‘Now a film starring Charlotte Rampling’, stood out for me among the remaindered Britlit and Neoist works Stewart Home had kindly stocked the shop with, because of the all too familiar tidal reach of the local creek it featured.  I didn’t stay in South London long enough for it to get to me but I was able to form a pretty decent appreciation of most of the locations Cook fell back on to show that someone was probably guilty just by where they drank.  Hemmed in by the South Circular, too narrow for the job these days, the zone stretches from the Millwall pubs around the decimated Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe through to the run-down former forces accommodation of Woolwich (which now houses mainly Balkan and Somali refugees) further down the Thames, with Downham in Lewisham and its fake Bromley BR1 postcode in the south (the estate was populated with Bermondsey overspill under the ‘sons and daughters’ policy, ossification not gentrification.) These are places not so much indifferent to the claimed benefits of regeneration, but just stubbornly resistant to it, give or take the odd development on a former docks site and 3D model in the council offices.

If you’re seeking to depict a character as lacking any kind of moral compass or even hope in life, as any taxi driver will tell you, placing them south of London Bridge is a good bet.  Ditto the hardboiled copper on their tail.  Cook was able to fashion an all too believable realm of troubled Falklands vets, Nazi thugs and crimson-faced pub regulars from the capital’s much-maligned south east quarter.  If my own well-worn cabbie clichés are all too evident then just take in Cook’s ‘it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it’ spiel here when setting out the never-revealed narrator’s job description in the Met’s Department of Unexplained Deaths (known within the service as A14):

The fact that A14 is by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service only goes to show that, to my way of thinking, it should have been created years ago.  Trendy Lefties in and out of politics or just on the edges don’t like us – but somebody has to do the job, they won’t.  The uniformed people don’t like us; nor does the Criminal Investigation Department, nor does the Special Intelligence Branch.

Even today, the estates of South London, mined by Cook for the unwelcoming pubs and unabashed cruelty, remain breeding grounds for organised fascism (the NF bulldog tendency morphing into the smiling leaflet in hand of the Burton-suited BNP) and massage parlours (runaways and West Indian gals giving way to trafficked Chinese and non-EU former Eastern bloc) – a cursory glance at any given week’s South London Press or Mercury reveals as much.  Cook was clever enough to invent pubs and street names, but the Henry of Agincourt in “the middle of Greenwich Lane” (He Died With His Eyes Open) would no doubt cater for wife-beaters from the soon to be demolished Ferrier (beloved of music video directors) or the Flamsteed on the lung-destroying Blackwall Tunnel approach road.  The Agincourt is the preferred haunt of “National Fronters”, again it’s perfectly possible to see the snarling media-baiting Acourts, over from Eltham’s laughably named Progress Estate, at the bar biding time before the Stephen Lawrence inquiry appearance.   

A14’s work takes the detective to the “three-storey tenements” of the “dangerous bloody district” of Romilly Place in Lewisham, which though fictional has enough hints and markers to suggest it to be the bottom of Loampit Vale, then “a third unemployed skinhead, and two-thirds unemployed black” (and now a recently-built police station bordering flagship social housing.) Local officialdom is always corrupt or incompetent, while the put-upon reporter from the ubiquitous Recorder has their uses.  As Cook notes,

Some idiot on the council had had the idea of putting a public callbox on the corner; it now contained no telephone, no glass and no door – a directory leaf or two skittered miserably about in the breeze.

He finds New Cross more to his liking however (“better than council housing”), also an area widely known for racial tension in the form of the pitched battle between marching skinheads and the ‘lefty’-led Anti-Nazi League in 1977, but takes a dim view of the “dreadful reddish council block” on Eltham Road behind the New Tiger pub (both street and pub do exist.) Towards the end of the book, he succumbs to a “sad emptiness” as he emerges from the Elephant and heads up New Kent Road.  No comment required.

Cook’s prescience in political matters is often remarked upon by virtue of his sixties satirical novel A State of Denmark (which predicts an authoritarian post-Labour regime.) Few authors have written so much about the daily presence of organised racists on council estates in South London, it has to be said, pre-empting the lengthy Lawrence case (hardly the Met’s finest hour) and its subsequent inquiry and the BNP’s recent electoral act.  The A14 detective questions the draconian effect of a proposed law (the “Police Special Powers Act”) which would enable him to detain a suspect without charge for seven days (as opposed to 28 now. ) He also has a suspect refuse a request for ID on the grounds that he doesn’t have to provide it, “not till the plastic cards come in.”

The South London motif became redundant as Cook worked his way through the cycle, shifting out of London or firmly on home turf by the time of Dora Suarez.  But he did leave one last throughway towards the end of that book:

‘Don’t work the mechanism too hard.’ The punter laughed, tottering away into the dark of South London, ‘that’s the motto, old boy.’

Maxim Jakubowski

Andrew Stevens talks to writer, bookseller and literary agent Maxim Jakubowski about Derek Raymond.

AS: How did your longstanding association with Robin Cook/Derek Raymond come about?

MJ: The first time I set eyes on Robin was in Paris at Gare d’Austerliz where the Train Noir was departing for the Grenoble crime festival. At the time, all his books were virtually unavailable in the UK and I hadn’t truly heard of him. And there was this voluble toff, with his ever-present beret, holding court as the train made its slow way down to the Alps. Also on the train were Sarah Dunant, Tim Heald, James Crumley and countless other writers from all over the place and, of course, France, along for the jamboree. Needless to say, the whisky and champagne ran out first, under the glare of a flock of television cameras and countless journalistic microphones, and I was one of the few still drinking (mineral water and orange juice) by the time the train arrived in Grenoble. I then saw little of Robin at the festival, as we were not only on different events but also due to the fact I was seldom at the hotel bar after meals!

The next time we met was at another European festival, Mystfest in Cattolica on the Italian Adriatic two years or so later. Also in attendance and performing his mad dog act at the slightest encouragement was James Ellroy. Suffice to say the effervescent Robin and James did not see eye to eye! But we began to talk, over meals, coffees, etc… and formed our friendship.

AS: Why didn’t Cook and Ellroy see eye to eye?

MJ: Problem is that Ellroy as an ex-alcoholic is now somewhat holier than thou when it comes to drink, and that Robin was jolly and irrepressible and didn’t realise how much Ellroy could not be encouraged to just have a sip any longer!

AS: How did you end up as his agent then?

MJ: When Robin finally returned to London after his lengthy foreign journeys in 1989, he contacted me. He had fallen out with his previous agent and wanted someone to represent him with whom he had a better rapport. Though I was not technically an agent, I had all the publishing contacts and took the job on out of friendship for him. Though I must sympathise with my predecessors as Robin was not the most disciplined of authors when it came to signing contracts or dealing with paperwork or contractual terms; but he never did miss a deadline I would add.

The first book I handled was Dora Suarez. He handed me the manuscript shortly after we shook hands on things and I remember reading it on a flight to New York and having my breath taken away.

There was still an option outstanding with Secker & Warburg from a previous contract so I submitted there initially.

His previous editor, Barley Alison, had by then retired and Dan Franklin was the new editorial director. He turned the book down swiftly, confessing he much admired the book but that it physically made him sick and he was therefore unable to champion it. I quickly placed it with Little, Brown whose Abacus imprint had paperbacked some of the Secker titles, and with Bob Wyatt at Ballantine in New York, who was launching a new (short-lived) imprint for difficult books called Available Press.

AS: The French and the Germans ‘got’ Cook obviously, but how was his work received in the States?

MJ: Sadly, when he was alive, Robin had a very limited audience in the USA, due to a checkered publishing history. He became more of a ‘writers’ writer’ so to speak. With the republication of the books by Serpent’s Tail his reputation and readership there is now growing, but it’s till nowhere on the scale of the Europe or even the UK. He has devoted fans, including many peer group writers like Jim Nisbet and James Sallis, but there’s still a way to go.

AS: Was there a deliberate plan to reissue the Serpent’s Tail editions in the series format?

MJ: Following Robin’s death and some of the earlier books falling out of print in the UK, it was always the intention of the Estate to get the Factory series republished; ideally in matching livery so as to make them easily identifiable and collectable. It took some time to clear all the rights and get them reverted in both the UK and USA, but once that had been achieved, we did a deal with Serpent’s Tail to reissue the series. They of course had reprinted some of his 1960s and 70s novels initially written under his real name, and have put together some great covers, as well as issuing for the first time in English Nightmare in the Street, which had hitherto only been available in French translation. Serpent’s Tail also distribute their books in the USA so this gave us the opportunity for the first time to present the series in its entirety over there.

AS: Are there any plans to have the earlier Robin Cook novels reissued? What about his short stories?

MJ: Serpent’s Tail sound keen about reissuing some of the remaining ‘social realistic’ novels Robin wrote in the 1970s, although they are naturally of minor interest and not as strong as his Derek Raymond crime books. There is also the possibility of a small collection of his short stories that his Italian and French publishers are also considering. John Williams and myself have managed to collate all the stories he wrote (not many) and it would form a slim volume, but the quality is undeniably high.

AS: Is there much interest in adapting his books for film?

MJ: There has been constant interest in adapting Robin’s books for the movies and/or TV over the years. The only instances of the adaptations actually making it to the screen were in France, where his iconic status has always attracted film-makers.

At various stages, the Factory books have been optioned by the BBC and other UK-based independent production companies; scripts were even penned but at the end of the day no final green light was ever given. The Estate is confident this will happen sooner or later but in the meantime we have been careful not to scatter the rights of individual books all over the place, and would rather wait for the right offer to film the whole series.

AS: There’s only one biography on the shelves of Cook at present, do you think he’s ripe for a further study given his reputation?

MJ: Initially, Robin thought of writing his biography, but this turned out to be The Hidden Files, which only skimmed the surface of his rather colourful life and career, and devoted much space to his personal view of the ‘black novel’. Shortly before his death, John Williams agreed with Robin’s approval to one day undertake a more complete exercise and for several months during Robin’s final illness taped Robin talking about his life. It was always the intention this would form the basis for a definitive biography. John is hopeful he can begin writing the book pretty soon, once he has other writing commitments out of the way, now that his Michael X bio has finally appeared.

Suarez Séance 17.07.08

The following is the text prepared by Cathi Unsworth for her introduction performed at the Suarez Séance at the Horse Hospital in July 2008.

(c) Cathi Unsworth 2008

“Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness, shall be heard in the light.”

When Derek Raymond appeared at the NFT in the summer of 1993 to perform with Terry Edwards and James Johnston the work you will be hearing later tonight, he was asked about the history of Noir fiction and what he considered to be the leading works in the canon. “You could start with The Bible,” he said. The words of Luke chapter 12 verse 3 clearly delineate his motivation. Derek Raymond, the Godfather of British Noir, shone his torch of enquiry into the darkest corners of evil, in an attempt to bring the unquiet victims back into the light.

The books of Derek Raymond – the Black Novels, as he called them – comprise a body of work that ask all the really hard questions. Why are we here? What is the point of all this suffering? Beneath the civilization we strive for, why do we continue to be so brutal?

The author was uniquely placed to pass comment on British society as he travelled through virtually every strata of it. Born in 1931, Robert William Arthur Cook was the son of a textile magnate, destined for Eton at the age of 16. “Terrible bloody place,” he later reminisced. “They were trying to make you into a good all-rounder, a cabinet minister, a bastard.” Although he did eventually find a use for his Eton tie — fronting long firms for Soho gangster Charles da Silva as self-styled ‘morrie’ Robin Cook.

That was after he had completed his National Service as a corporal of latrines, been a war correspondent and an international art smuggler. In the London of the early 1960s he found, “An Eton background is a terrific help if you are into vice of any kind.” Between inveigling funds, running gambling parties around The King’s Road and selling porn in Soho, Cook penned his debut, The Crust on its Uppers in 1962. Its glossary of criminal argot was considered by Dictionary of Slang compiler Eric Partridge to be his best source in 25 years.

For reasons never specified but not hard to imagine, Cook moved to Italy shortly after, where he continued to write vicious satires like Private Parts in a Public Place and Bombe Surprise, ran a vineyard, and was made foreign minister for his local Anarchist collective. In 1970’s A State of Denmark he had a nightmare vision of a future England under the dictatorship of smiling Prime Minister Jobling and his re-branded Labour Party, The New Pace.

Cook returned to London in the 70s, but after trying to make ends meet mini-cabbing, he lost his third wife and a house in Holland Park. He retreated to France, working a vineyard from a medieval tower in the Massif Central. When one of his neighbours pointed out that that was how he looked set to end his days, Robin pulled on his beret, turned again to those distant London streets and was born again as Derek Raymond – so as not to be confused with either the politician or the SF writer of the same name, he took his new ID from the first names of his two favourite drinking pals.

The ‘Factory’ series of books that he began in the late Eighties stand as a benchmark in modern crime fiction. Brimming with violence and disgust, spoken in the language of the street and fired with a fervent compassion for the fate of the victim, they turned the cosy, crossword puzzle confines of the traditional potboiler on their head.

He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home on Leave, How The Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez, Dead Man Upright and Not Till The Red Fog Rises stalk the bleakest corners of a vividly-rendered London “scoured by vile psychic weather”. The casebooks of a nameless Detective Sergeant, most accurately described as an avenging angel, catalogue such crimes as the ex-army psycho who chops up and boils his victims, leaving them all neatly stapled up in plastic bags; the biography of a broken ex-BBC writer, whose lover is plotting to kill him with the help of a maniacal mummy’s boy; and perhaps most devastatingly of all, the story of poor Dora Suarez, who invites her own doom over the threshold and into her bed.

It is virtually impossible to separate the life of Derek Raymond from what he put into his novels, and in his memoir, The Hidden Files, he describes the profound impact Suarez had upon his being. He was at a friend’s house in France when he was shown a book of police crime scene photographs. He came to a page that showed the corpse of a beautiful young woman with black hair, who had been stabbed on a sofa and is lying back on it, her arm raised to try and shield herself, a look of terror glazed into her eyes. The same photograph that is reproduced on the album of Dora Suarez. Robin’s immediate reaction to this picture was to jump in his car, go back to the tower and begin writing. Here’s how he describes the process that followed in The Hidden Files:

“The writing of Suarez, through plunging me into evil, became the cause of my seeking to purge what was evil in myself… If I had no guilt to purge I would not have known where the road to hell was, nor how to look for Dora. It was an 18 month journey during which the world of light was no stronger than my belief in it, but it was enough for myself and Dora to find our way back and out of the labyrinth. On my journey I left the world for the page, and the page of hell, and the hope for the return journey. I have returned. I crept terrified into a dark place and struck a light in another’s darkness and I have returned here with the knowledge that Dora’s agony among the lost is over. The squalid atrocity of her death has dropped away from her and she is freed, unlocked, no longer lost and dead to herself, which is what damnation is. That I have never known Dora in life, that she was just the face in a police photograph of a dead, anonymous girl whom I named Dora doesn’t matter; that she should have found her identity is what matters. What matters is that we met in the middle world where the living and the dead meet, and brought each other away from that lightless place.

Suarez was my atonement for 50 years’ indifference to the miserable state of this world; it was a terrible journey through my own guilt, and through the guilt of others.”

Thanks to the work of Robin’s fifth wife, the French filmmaker Agnes Bert, we can now take a look at the author at work in his tower in France, discussing his love of Noir authors Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler and David Goodis; his hatred of ‘our Great fucking British police force’ and the writing of I Was Dora Suarez. The documentary also reveals his hitherto undiscussed enthusiasm for the songwriting of Shane MacGowan and The Pogues in no uncertain terms.

How The Dead Live intro – Will Self

‘Bad writers,’ Auden remarked, ‘borrow. Good ones steal’ I like to think I’m a good enough writer to thieve – and do so blatantly. I ripped off Robin Cook’s (aka Derek Raymond) title How the Dead Live quite shamelessly, and gave it to one of my own novels. He was dead, so he couldn’t do anything about it. Some Raymond acolyte thought this was a bit much and wrote me an irate letter. Big deal. Besides, I don’t think Cook would’ve given a toss – he was enough of a Wildean to know flattery when it was staring him in the face.

In truth, I never read Cook’s How the Dead Live until it came time to write this introduction to it – that’s how any literary blagger justifies a bit of work: he doesn’t empathise with his victim – he goes in with the sawn-off pen cocked. True, I’d dabbled in a couple of his other Factory novels, the legendarily emetic I was Dora Suarez and He Died with his Eyes Open, but it wasn’t until preparing to write this piece that I gave Cook’s work any serious consideration.

Some say that the so-called ‘Godfather of English noir fiction’ is quite distinct from his American progenitors; that whereas the books of Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald et al. are characterised by lonely heroes who are committed to righting the perceived injustices of society, Cook’s took the detective procedural far further – down the road to full blown existentialist horror.

The nameless protagonist of the Factory novels has no truck with what he perceives as the seedy moral equivocations of the duly constituted authorities; his is a quest for perfect moments of human connection. If this means that he’s condemned to a lurid shadow dance, battling with the shades of good and evil, the so be it. His is a disillusionment of not only tragic – but epic – proportions. In other words: he’s exactly the same as any other middle aged male cynic, stamping his foot because the world’s has gone sour on him, yet unwilling to imagine what his own mouth tastes like.

So, I say Cook was remarkably faithful to the hardboiled genre. If anything How the Dead Live is more Chandleresque than Chandler, right down to the incongruous quotations from Shakespeare, Spenser and Mrs Gaskell (!), and an allusion to Socrates that has to be oddly obscured in order to make it plausible mental content for a sergeant in Met.

Then there’s the lexicon of Cockney geezer slang, terms recondite even when Cook was writing in the mid-1980s. With his darlings, loves, shtucks, bunny rabbits, artists, berks and wooden-tops, Cook hearkens back to an earlier era, when ‘the code’ prevailed, and there was a difference between good, honest, working crims, and dirty little toe rags, an aristocracy – believe it or not – of crime, the upper reaches of which his solitary jaundiced hero feels a certain affinity with.

And then there are the lacunae with which these books proceed: the frontal lobe discombobulating occasioned by intoxication. For Hammett it was usually opiates – for Chandler, liquor. Cook’s characters swim in the stuff. In How the Dead Live the drinking begins at 9.30 or 10.00 in the morning and pours on unabated. There’s also coke, smack and dope, but you can sample this boozy stream as if it were contaminated river running through the text: Kronenburg, vodka martinis and plenty of Bells (or ring-a-ding as our man jocularly refers to it), sherry, more whisky. When the bent copper is cornered he tries to buy his way out of it with a single malt, when the villain’s catamite comes out shooting his hand is unsteadied by a tumbler of whisky. When the tragic Dr Mardy’s guerrilla surgery fails, his patient is numbed by morphine ‘on a whisky base’.

This view from the bar of the French House in Soho is compounded by the Cook’s strangely foreshortened perception of England (or ‘Britain’ as he quaintly refers to it). Absent in the 1960s and 1970s, Cook’s Britain is all façade and hinterland with no mid-ground: he simply isn’t aware of the social context within which things happen: there are ‘blacks’ and ‘Africans’ serving in junk food places and pubs. In the shires, bumptious pseudo-squires drive five-door Mercedes, yet the saloon bar is still full of men with military titles, who bang on about evacuating from Dunkirk under fire, while in the public bar, a Falstaffian chorus of drinkers guys the town’s bigwig. This is an un-time, where everything seems anachronistic – whether it’s a computer, an electricity strike – or festering stately pile.

The action of How the Dead Live proceeds through the agency of snarling verbal jousts between the Nameless One and various hated fellow cops, debased stooges, disgusting crims and vilely ugly, whoreish women, alternating with oddly impassioned soliloquies. The only characters he has any sympathy for are his wronged sister, a 10-year-old girl beggar, a suicidal junkie he had an affair with – and, of course, the murderer. His wife went mad, his father and mother became ossified by disease, his straight-copper mates have all been savagely maimed in the line of duty.

Put like this How the Dead Live sounds like a ridiculous gallimaufry – and it would be, were it not for two factors: Cook could write beautifully, when he had cause to; and, more importantly, what he is writing about in this novel are nothing less than the most important subjects any writer can deal with: morality and death.

Like Chandler, Cook’s very weaknesses as a writer are also his strengths – the tipsy sentimentality, the jaded eye, the poetic riff – these, when yoked to an imagination that insists on the most visceral stripping of skin from skull, produce prose of exquisite intensity.

Even Cook’s weird historical perspective – sheered off like the bonnet of a bubble car – comes into its own in this novel: How the Dead Live, first published in 1986, teeters on a chronological cliff: its principal characters are all irretrievably maimed by the experience of the war, and the wholesale death they witnessed. The shades of these dead haunt them, and percolate into the scuzzy atmosphere. It is this profound and now vanished era, when the dead lived among the living of grubby old England, that is Cook’s true subject – the seeming police procedural is just that – and he deals with it masterfully.

As the insane Dr Mardy draws us into his mouldering fantasy and his mildewed madness, we experience a true horripilation, a rising of the hackles that indicates we are in the presence of the human mind pushed beyond the brink. Cook makes us see, that while we may cavort in the sunny uplands of life, the shades are always among us, flitting back and forth, seemingly without purpose, and yet slowly, insidiously, relentlessly, herding us towards the grave.

Nightmare in the Street

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A plain-clothes copper in Paris, Kleber is 40 years old, drinks hard and smokes fifty a day. He is devoted to his young wife, Elenya, a former prostitute whom he rescued from her pimp, but he is embittered by 22 years on the streets, and his sleep is haunted by dreams of death. Kleber has many enemies, and only one friend: a criminal named Mark. When Kleber is suspended from the police force for punching a fellow officer, his underworld adversaries seize their chance to bring him to heel. Down but not out, Kleber will show no mercy to those who harm the ones he loves.

Derek Raymond’s final book – the typescript was discovered after his death in 1994 – Nightmare in the Street is a fitting finale to a career spent writing about, and indeed living among, the darkest reaches of humanity.

‘A unique crime writer whose functional world was brutal, realistic and harrowing in the extreme’ Guardian

‘A legendary crime novelist’ Sunday Times

‘Raymond is a master of the sharp vignette, the telling phrase, the speech patterns that perfectly describe a character. All the people in his book are vividly alive.’ New York Times

Chris Petit review for The Guardian

I Was Dora Suarez

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An axe-wielding psychopath carves young Dora Suarez into pieces and smashes the head of Suarez’s friend, an elderly woman. On the same night, in the West End, a firearm blows the top off the head of Felix Roatta, part-owner of the seedy Parallel Club.

The unnamed narrator, a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police’s Unexplained Deaths division, develops a fixation on the young woman whose murder he investigates. And he discovers that Suarez’s death is even more bizarre than suspected: the murderer ate bits of flesh from Suarez’s corpse and ejaculated against her thigh.

Autopsy results compound the puzzle: Suarez was dying of AIDS, but the pathologist can’t tell how the virus was introduced. Then a photo, supplied by a former Parallel hostess, links Suarez to Roatta, and inquiries at the club reveal how vile and inhuman exploitation can become.

‘A pioneer of British noir… No one else has come near to matching his style or overwhelming sense of madness.’ The Times

‘If you think of the act of writing as a game of chicken between the author and his talent, then Derek Raymond is one author who achieves his ecstacy by sailing off cliffs. Everything about I Was Dora Suarez shrieks of the joy and pain of going too far.’ New York Times

3:AM Magazine review