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.

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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

The Devil’s Home on Leave

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After a man’s corpse is discovered in a Rotherhithe warehouse, Derek Raymond’s nameless investigator from A14 – the ‘Unexplained Deaths’ division of the Met – is put on the case.

Operating, as usual, with his cunning and sheer nerve in place of adequate resources and contacts, he seeks to uncover much more than the murderer. To the comment from his boss at A14: ‘If you will stay a sergeant, you will always get the shitty end of the stick,’ he replies: ‘Maybe, but I think that’s the end where the truth is.’

The truth is that The Devil’s Home on Leave brilliantly captures with an authenticity rare in British crime fiction.

‘Raymond has prodigious literary gifts as a writer of class low-life London novels.’ New Statesman

‘I cannot think of another writer so obsessed with the skull beneath the skin.’ The Times

Fragment:

‘He droned on, completely – and what was worse, unconsciously – absorbed in himself, and suddenly I realized what hell it meant, not only to be a killer, but a bore. You think nothing of taking life, but your own existence fascinates you, and that’s the imbalance that we mean by evil… This neat, dull man, crouched in a sort of mass over his own hands, that freaked me.’

How The Dead Live

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This, the third novel in the Factory Series, sees Raymond’s nameless detective leave London for a remote village called Thornhill, where he’s meant to be looking into the disappearance of a local doctor’s wife.

How The Dead Live is a haunting, fantastical novel, with a hellish country house at its centre; a mystery with little interest in the mystery, a police procedural with almost no procedure. Instead, and as ever with Raymond, it’s a brilliantly unsettling investigation into love and damnation. This is life seen from the very bottom of the bottle – a fitting succesor to classic noir writers such as Jim Thompson and David Goodis.

‘A sulphurous mixture of ferocious violence and high-flown philosophy’ Prospect

‘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.’ Will Self

Intro by Will Self.

Guardian review

He Died With His Eyes Open

Buy at amazon.

When a middle-aged alcoholic is found brutally battered to death on a roadside in West London, the case is assigned to a nameless detective sergeant, a tough-talking cynic and fearless loner from the Department of Unexplained Deaths at the Factory police station. Working from cassette tapes left behind in the dead man’s property, our narrator must piece together the history of his blighted existence and discover the agents of its cruel end. What he doesn’t expect is that digging for the truth will demand plenty of lying, and that the most terrible of villains will also prove to be the most attractive.

In the first of six police procedurals that comprise the Factory series, Derek Raymond spins a riveting, and vividly human crime drama. Relentlessly pursuing justice for the dispossessed, his detective narrator treads where few others dare: in the darkest corners of London, a city of sin plagued by unemployment, racism and vice, and peopled by a cast of low-lifes, all utterly convincing and brought to life by Raymond’s pitch-perfect dialogue.

‘A crackerjack of a crime novel, unafraid to face the reality of man’s and woman’s evil’ Evening Standard

‘A mixture of thin-lipped Chandleresque backchat and of idioms more icily subversive’ Observer

‘A pioneer of British noir… No one has come near to matching his style or overwhelming sense of sadness… Raymond’s world is uniformly sinister, his language strangely mannered. He does not strive for accuracy, but achieves an emotional truth all his own.’
Marcel Berlins, The Times

‘Cook’s prose can make amazing stylistic leaps without once losing its balance… He anticipates James Ellroy and David Peace, among others, in this terrifying determination to disclose the skull beneath the skin… a supreme example of how nasty Britain actually is.’ Time Out

‘Witty, perceptive and well written’ Big Issue

Intro by James Sallis
Time Out review