A personal tribute to the urban commentary of Robin Cook by Andrew Stevens (Admin.)
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.’