‘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.