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.