Among crime readers, there are certain qualities that serve as points on our criminal compass. For example, authors who put a scalpel to the subtle psychological underpinnings of crime contrast with those for whom swift action on every page is essential. Another scale lies between whodunnits with a humorous or “cozy” feel, and those on the darker, grittier end of the spectrum. And just as with diners who always order the full 5 spicy stars at a Thai restaurant, there are readers who devour the bleakest and blackest of hardboiled authors with perverse relish. For these readers, I suggest Derek Raymond, the deeply influential but little-known godfather of British noir.
Raymond’s life story is fascinating – rich kid turned criminal, exiled to France – but his reputation rests on a series of five novels featuring a detective sergeant working out of Police Headquarters, aka “the factory,” on the unsolved deaths of largely forgotten people – drunks, derelicts, junkies and the insane. The detective (we never learn his name) is haunted by the death of his daughter at the hands of his wife, an event which committed him utterly and unrelentingly to seeking justice for the nameless, faceless “trash” written off by an increasingly alienated, materialistic society. The detective’s path grows darker and more tortuous from He Died with His Eyes Open to the assembly of a dismembered corpse and its story in The Devil’s Home on Leave, to How the Dead Live, featuring a bizarre crime that plunges us past sanity into murky madness.
Then we come to Raymond’s masterwork: I Was Dora Suarez, a book so shockingly graphic that Raymond’s erstwhile publisher was purported to have vomited on his desk just a few pages in. We witness in disturbingly objectified detail the ghastly murder of a young prostitute, and the offhand killing of an elderly friend. Then we join our detective as he surveys the carnage and is transfixed, and transfigured, by what he sees. It is a harrowing reading experience, and one that dares us to witness the true face of crime, not merely as a riddle to be solved or a wrong to be righted, but as the most tragic failure of individuals and of society. It is very hard to come out the other end of I Was Dora Suarez and not be somehow altered by the experience. Reading the book reminds me of the first and only jury I ever sat on, sifting through the facts and the evidence in a case that led to us finding a man guilty of the murder by strangulation of three drug addicted prostitutes. Like jury duty, reading Raymond demands a certain responsibility of the reader.
As with his other “factory novels” – Raymond termed them his “black novels” – I Was Dora Suarez begs us see how the most unspeakable crimes differ only in degree from the little deaths and depredations endured by many of the living, day after day. The real crime is not the manner of death, but the manner of life. Long unavailable, all five of Raymond’s factory novels have been reprinted by Melville House. If you’re up to the challenge, they’re incomparable.