In for a Penny, In for a Pound: The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond

The Factory Novels by Derek Raymond (published by Melville House)

The Devil’s Home On Leave

How the Dead Live

I Was Dora Suarez

 

RaymondBundleSweeney Todd, the notorious barber of Fleet Street, first appeared in an 1846 Victorian Penny Dreadful entitled “The String of Pearls: A Romance”.  Dreadfuls were cheap chapbooks, sold for a penny a piece (later reduced to half-pence, or Half Penny Dreadfuls) which churned out sensationalist serialized fiction for London’s newly literate mobs.

 In that first incarnation the Demon Barber of Fleet Street sent his victims to their deaths through a trapdoor rigged behind and beneath his barber chair.  Usually cause of death was from the broken neck or skull which occurred upon landing.  It was only the survivors of the fall who Todd would  “polish off” – slitting their throats with his straight razor.  The remains were then taken to a Mrs. Lovett, the proprietress of a nearby meat pie shop, by means of a connecting tunnel.  The bodies were ground up and used as pie-filling in pastries sold to an unsuspecting public.

History has shown that what is sensational and lurid to one generation becomes humdrum to the next.  Over time Sweeney Todd went from being a villain to the hero or, more accurately, anti-hero. The violence escalated and he began slitting all his victims’ jugulars, the trap door merely an expedient means of conveying the bodies into the basement.  Originally tried and hanged for his crimes, in later versions (notably Sondheim’s 1979 musical adaptation) Todd is killed by his own razor.  Even Mrs. Lovett’s fate became more violent – poison is replaced by being burned alive.

Perhaps the most disturbing escalation is that of Todd’s assistant Toby Ragg. In “The String of Pearls” Toby is a young man banished to an asylum by Todd & Mrs. Lovett when he begins to feel remorse for the his part in the murders. He appears at the end to testify against Todd and then goes on to lead a peaceful life as a domestic servant. Skip forward 161 years to Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation and Ragg has evolved into a young orphan boy who loves Mrs. Lovett as a mother – making her betrayal all the more horrifying when she conspires with Todd to kill the child.  Ragg escapes and returns in the final scene to slit Todd’s throat as revenge for Todd’s murdering  Mrs. Lovett.

This long and convoluted introduction has a point.  Derek Raymond, author of the five novels that make up The Factory series, is by many considered the father of British crime noir. But Raymond is also very much a descendant of those penny dreadful authors of the 19th century.  His writing relies on the same formula  of sensationalism, horror and mawkish sentiment.  He explores the same genres – detective stories, gothic horror and gore – which made the dreadfuls popular among young boys.  Yes, he was heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler and the noir films and novels of the 40’s & 50’s – but Derrick Raymond cast a wider net than some give him credit for. Not just quoting (and the books contain a surprising amount of literary quotes), but in a sense paying homage to Dickens and a host of lesser known authors from the Victorian period.

Each Factory novel describes a case solved by the unnamed, maverick detective in A14, the Unexplained Deaths department of a London police station nicknamed the Factory.  They feature a cast of reoccurring characters: the unnamed detective (of course), his superior “the Voice” and his nemesis Inspector Bowman in Important Crimes. On the whole, the unnamed detective is a loner in the tradition of hard-boiled literature, but manages to find a few allies who share his desire to find justice for the dead.  The Devil’s Home On Leave, How the Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez are the middle three books of the series.   The Devil’s Home On Leave, the most conventional and least interesting of the three, investigates a contract killing and delves into the criminal underworld of 1980’s London.  How the Dead Live is a gothic love story complete with a decaying mansion, lovers tragically separated.  The plot (tweaked for the 20th century) and prose style are in the vein of Mary Shelley or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The fourth book – the last to be published during the author’s lifetime – is the most contemporary in that the major plot points rely most heavily on current events. The victim, the titular Dora Suerez, is dying of AIDS at the time of her murder.

These novels – romances if we call them what they are – were intended for male consumption.  Like Chandler’s LA noir novels and the Westerns of Louis L’Amour there exists a clean line between good and evil. The villains have no redeeming qualities.  The women are madonna’s or whores.  The heroes are seldom rewarded, or even respected, for doing what is right.  There is a certain amount of fantasy fulfillment involved.  Male readers relate to the protagonists because they want to be like them: honorable and good. Modern knights-errant looking to protect the vulnerable.  The fact that these heroes are imperfect and damaged only makes them more identifiable, and the fantasy more attainable.

Raymond also trades in darker fantasies. One of his many careers before settling on writing was as a pornographer. The graphic nature of the physical and sexual violence increases with each book, becomes more literal and less literary, so that by the time we’ve reached the opening scenes of I Was Dora Suarez (the fourth book in the series) the descriptions of the murders convey the disturbing lurid voyeuristic fetishism of a snuff film or torture porn. In those first few pages the killer brutally dismembers his victim, ejaculates into her wounds and licks up her blood.  He defecates in the corner of the room.

Bowman said:’Why do so many of them feel they have to do that?’

‘It’s egoism and overexcitement,’ I sad. ‘It’s part of a very complicated way of getting your rocks off  it’s also like someone illiterate signing some document with an X.’

He stirred the stool with the tip of his Regent Street boot. ‘What chance do you think you’ve got, catching him?’

I said, ‘I’ll get him.’

‘We think so, too, said Bowman. ‘but don’t think we’re going to do you any out-of-the-way favours.’

‘I’ll find my own way of getting any help I need,’ I said, ‘and as for favours, you may find htat by putting me on this you won’t have done yourself any.’ I added: ‘Just fuck off now, Charlie, will you? I want to be on my own.’

No detail is left to the imagination.  As each layer of the mystery is peeled back events become more and more sordid.  It starts to feel as if a line is being crossed, the one that Val McDermid discussed in a 2010 interview. “Murder is not a parlour game; it’s not a cheap thrill, and some people write about it like ‘Let’s get onto the next victim and have a cheap thrill’. I don’t like the kind of writing that glories in violence, that treats victims as disposable objects.”

The author redeems himself, barely. Readers, through the detective, come to know the victims intimately.  And while the perpetrators of violence have motives – those motives are stated rather than explored.  It is how the victims came under the purview of Unexplained Deaths that Raymond truly cares about.  How the timeline of their lives came to converge with their murderer’s at the moments of their deaths.  In How the Dead Live we gather information through conversations the unnamed detective has with the victim’s husband; in I Was Dora Suarez we read excerpts from Dora’s journal. The dead are treated with respect, empathy and kindness despite the violent circumstances of their deaths.

 ‘…However, my dead remarry in the air I breathe, invisible yet solid, reliving their situations in this wet house – a calm, upright spirit is the one response to evil, and that is our fight.

‘At least I know now what I have lost here I can never lose again.

‘Oh God, if I had been born stupid I would have gone to my death like an ox and been eaten for my meat by my tormentors without ever knowing or caring why.’

Empathy and some interesting stylistic innovations are the marks of this author’s work.  One of the most unusual and effective trick is the way Raymond incorporates cockney rhyming or “Geezer” slang into his characters’ dialogue. Criminals “do bird” in prison.  Snitches are “grasses”. The “Factory” is another name for the police station. To an American reader it’s like a foreign language – completely disarming.  The story could just as easily exist in the recent past or a distant and gritty dystopian future.  The novels are, in fact, set during Margaret Thatcher’s London – something not immediately apparent based on, nor particularly relevant to, most of what takes place.

The choice to leave the two central characters (the unnamed detective and his superior, the Voice), nameless adds to the feeling of being outside of time.  It  reminded me of Philippe Claudel’s novel The Investigation. Perhaps the anonymity is meant, as it was in Claudel’s novel, to express some kind of post-modern nihilism on the part of the author?  Or maybe Raymond was just bad at coming up with names?

Most likely the latter.  For as enjoyable as they are, the Factory novels are every bit as campy, sentimental and contrived as those early 19th century Dreadfuls. The unnamed detective, in particular, can only be described as emotionally overwrought – his thoughts and dialogue expressed in deep purple prose. The tragedy in his back story is extravagant: a mentally deranged wife in an asylum for killing their only daughter; a partner who, wounded in the line of duty, is now paralyzed and sidelined; regular conflicts with fellow officers more concerned with personal glory and career advancement than justice for the dead.

I haven’t picked up the final book of the series, Dead Man Upright, yet.  And I’m not sure if I will. It was published posthumously, and so like all posthumous works you can’t help but wonder what level of completion it was left in by the author. I’m also more worried about what Raymond and fate have in store for the detective than I like to admit.  I don’t hold out much hope for his making a good end.  He’s too emotionally raw for the work he does. Too isolated from society.  He doesn’t seem to have the sense to buffer himself with alcohol and dames and wisecracks like his American counterparts. No, I don’t believe this series will end well for anyone.  In fact I’d wager complete scorched-earth devastation taking place in the final chapter.  Emotional subtlety – subtlety of any kind if we are being honest – is not Derek Raymond’s strong suit.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Redux)

Let’s start with Michael Chabon.  Being a fan of all things Sherlock Holmes, I read “The Final Solution” when it was first released. It’s a slim novella that, in my opinion, tread too much water.  You move from beginning to end at a satisfactory pace with no major plot disappointment or style road bumps to slow you down. But, it was average. Middle of the road. Bland.  I was left with the sense that both our efforts, mine and the author’s, had disappointing returns.

Note:  Chabon was also hurt by the fact that “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin came out at about the same time. Of the two, Cullin’s book reads better, creates more atmosphere and adds something to the canon. Both use the same gimmick – an unnamed detective at the end of his life who is, but never identified as, Sherlock Holmes. Cullin’s story is the more solid, more crisp, and better channels Doyle.

So, I’m not even really sure why I picked up this book.

Author aside, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” isn’t a story I’m normally drawn to. It’s a hard boiled detective novel.  It’s alternative history. It’s very, very Jewish. I’m not against any of these things – I just don’t browse those sections of the bookstore. Fortunately the book turned out to be more than the sum of its parts.  “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a book to read because you enjoy good storytelling… and I’m happy to say that the writing isn’t so shabby either.

Better than not so shabby, in fact.  Chabon writes sentences that pull you through the main plot  while cheerfully directing your attention to vignettes he’s skillfully placed off to the side. (He’s very much what I imagine a MGM movie lot tour guide to be: instructing you to please look to the left and to the right, while hurrying you ever forward to the main event). Here’s an example of that kind of moment:

The main character of the story, Meyer Landsman, and his partner Berko Shemets wander into a seedy bar/strip joint at 7AM to talk.  Inside is Hershal, a dog waiting patiently for his master, Nathan Kalushiner, to return. Nathan was a jazz clarinetist who ran off with a mobster’s wife and whose various body parts subsequently washed up on the docks (but not, we are told, his C-soprano clarinet). Hershal has been waiting in the same spot for 5 years.

Berko has been staring at the dog with increasing fixity. Abruptly, he gets up and goes over to the stage. He clomps up the three wooden steps and stands looking down at Hershel… He takes hold of the dog’s head in his massive hands and looks into the dog’s eyes. “Enough already,” he says. “He isn’t coming.”

The dog regards Berko as if sincerely interested in this bit of news. Then he lurches to his hind legs and hobbles over to the steps and tumbles carefully down them. Toenails clacking, he crosses the concrete floor to the table where Landsman sits and looks up as if for confirmation.

“That’s the straight ems, Hershel,” Landsman tells the dog. “They used dental records.”

The dog appears to consider this, then much to Landsman’s surprise, he walks over to the front door. Berko gives Landsman a look of reprimand: What did I tell you? He darts a glance towards the beaded curtain, then slides back the bolt, turns the key, and opens the door. The dog trots right out as if he has pressing business elsewhere.

Berko goes back to the table, “looking like he has just liberated a soul from the wheel of karma” and the main action resumes.

These stories within the story are the foundation on which Chabon builds a novel that is an  homage to the magical realism of South America & Marquez as much as it is to the genre literature he is such a proponent of.  They are also, in my mind, an indication of all great fantasy writing.  Because creating a world that immerses readers is all about attention to detail.   The details are what sell it.  And the pleasure of a Chabon book, a good Chabon book, is found in how skillfully he handles these details.

The plot of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is otherwise surprisingly straight forward.  There are two parallel story lines. Two years after its creation Israel fell and was wiped from the map of the Middle East. The American government gave the Jewish refugees of WW2 the use of a desolate area of Alaska – for 60 years. The 60 years is about up and everything, including the police force, is about to revert back to the Americans.

The second storyline revolves around Meyer Landsman… destined to become one of the great gumshoe detectives.  Landsman is a drunk who lives in a dive hotel that caters almost exclusively to lowlifes. His neighbor, a grandmaster chess player and smack addict is murdered in the room next door. This bothers Landsman and he becomes fixated on solving the case. As is par for the course in these kinds of stories, a lot of people seem to have a vested interest in his not doing that.  Landsman also manages to face and resolve several personal issues along the way.

Overall, “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is an enormous and welcome surprise of a book  Chabon took the cliche detective novel and tossed it into an alternative history novel. He populated it with people who are the neighbors you want to have in the world you almost wish you lived in. Every last eccentric character is completely exotic; but is at the same time fleshed out to the point of being completely believable in their every description, word and action.  And in a time when the word literature has become synonymous with angst and depression, Chabon’s book is happy and laugh out loud funny. And did I mention? – the writing isn’t so shabby, either.

In Search of Steampunk

Top 10 Unanswered Questions after reading The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes:

  1. Who is Barabbas?  What is his past history with Edward Moon ?  Why is he chosen by Love, Love & Love?
  2. Who is the Somnambulist? Where did he come from?  Why doesn’t he talk and what’s with the milk? What is he? Who was his predecessor? What the hell happens to him at the end?
  3. What happened in the case Moon failed to solve that is repeatedly referenced but never explained?
  4. Who would procreate with Skimpole?
  5. Who or what exactly are The Prefects?
  6. Why Coleridge? And what was the purpose of b******* h** b*** t* l***?  (That’ll make more sense if you read the book).
  7. Are we really expected to believe the unlikely reason we are given by the criminal mastermind (I use that term lightly) for his whole evil plan?
  8. Dedlock & Skimpole – what exactly was the point?
  9. What is the Directorate’s purpose and why is it secret?
  10. What was the reason for the strain between Moon & his sister, Charlotte?

You may have noticed that’s more the 10.

My intention was to give this book a bad review. That changed somewhere along the way. It’s really not surprising. The Somnambulist may not be a particularly good book, but sometimes bad books happen to good writers. Jonathan Barnes is, in fact, a good writer who unfortunately made a mess of his first book. Or did he? As I reread my initial draft of this review I realized that what Monty Python was to Arthurian Lit is what Barnes may be to the Victorian Detective Novel.

The Somnambulist is fun in an absolutely ridiculous way.  The author definitely did his research and the result is a novel that pays homage to the genre. Arthur Conan Doyle, Lovecraft & Dickens all have a stake in the story… among others. (For the full list read the Praise for the Somnambulist found on the first page of the paperback edition).  That may be exactly why the book disappoints.  Barnes took on authors who first and foremost are storytellers, which only highlights the fact that he isn’t.

The main character, despite the title, is Edward Moon – a part time investigator and conjurer in Victorian England who has fallen to B-list celebrity status for reasons never fully explained.  Moon and his sidekick, the Somnambulist, are pulled into a strange murder mystery of seemingly Lovecraftian persuasion.  We are led from there through a labyrinth of situations, events, and settings peopled by characters which are familiar to fans of the genre – in admittedly twisted versions.   All of this is strung along by the flimsiest plot I’ve ever come across and told by an unreliable narrator who is generous enough to warn us of his status in the opening paragraph.

“Be warned. (See?!) This book has no literary merit whatsoever.  It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre.  Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it…one final warning: in the spirit of fair play, I ought to admit that I shall have reason to tell you more than one direct lie.”

If an unreliable narrator informs you that he is unreliable, doesn’t that make him reliably unreliable? Hence he is no longer an unreliable narrator?  Why Barnes felt he had to let that cat out of the bag so early on is beyond me, other than for stylistic effect.  There is a lot of that throughout the book: stylistic devices and effects.  Often it feels as if the author has a list of plot elements and literary devices he’s checking off while providing a bare bones narrative structure to hold it all together.  Think of it as Steampunk (Google it if you don’t know the word) porn.  The story is only there as an excuse to get you to the good parts.


The good parts of The Somnambulist are the eccentric and wonderful characters.  Not least of which is the book’s namesake: a milk guzzling, mute giant who can be repeatedly pierced by swords as if he were made of sawdust. It’s a testament to Barnes’ imagination that the Somnambulist probably won’t be your favorite.  For example there are The Prefects, two adult psychotic killers that dress and talk like British Public School boys.  They leave a trail of carnage through the second half of the book.  Or Dedlock, the middle aged British civil servant and head of the Directorate, who seems almost banally stereotypical until you realize that no one in this novel is typical.  Or that questionably unreliable narrator who has a love / hate relationship with Moon that is oddly engaging. Again, Barnes isn’t a bad writer. If his novel fails, it fails because he is so busy running us to the next character and setting that we never really have the opportunity to explore and enjoy the one we are currently at.  He doesn’t give them, or the story, a chance to become something.  The characters’ motivations are flimsy at best, and other than appearing at the right time they do nothing to further the plot.  And the plot does nothing to develop who they are.

My verdict is that The Somnambulist could be a better book than it is,  despite being clever on many levels.  (There’s an interesting connection to explore between the title, Coleridge, and a Coleridge bio by John Charpentier entitled Coleridge: The Sublime Somnambulist).   At the end I was left feeling frustrated that only a very small portion of the story has been told, and superficially at that.

So, is it Booksexy?  It does have a certain something… like a guy with a great line but no substance.  Perfect for bars, in the art house lobby before the film starts & anyplace where you’re going to see and be seen.  Get caught reading it when the eye candy you asked out with no intention of going on a second date shows up.  It’ll make great  small talk while you decide whether or not you’ll be…  umm… reading in bed tonight.



Vive le Genre!

Lately there has been a renewed interest in genre fiction. Whether it’s Stephen King’s lurid covers on retro paperbacks in the grocery aisle, Michael Chabon’s serialized adventure story in the New York Times Magazine, or Arturo Pèrez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste swordsman-for-hire series, – the pulp novel is suddenly being taken seriously. And I’m glad. Books written & read for entertainment and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Graham Greene, Dumas, Dickens and Faulkner were the mass market darlings of their times. It seems that some books, like wine and Juliet Binoche, only get better with age. But before you jump into the latest crop of retro-flavored genre fiction, here are my recommendations to establish your street cred:

Wilkie Collins – Collins, who last topped the best seller lists in the 1860’s, is on the edge of most readers’ radars.  His best known works are The Woman in White & The Moonstone, so either would be a good introduction.  Both books are filled with over the top plot contrivances (complicated revenge schemes, heroines locked in asylums and Hindu jugglers to name just a few) that make them entertaining reads in ways the author probably never intended.  In addition to solid writing, Collins can arguably be credited with creating the English Detective novel.   Dubbed a “sensationalist” author, it is my opinion that his stories seem less dated and maudlin than his contemporary (and mentor) Charles Dickens.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Everyone has heard of Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle created a character so popular, who so captured the imagination of his readers, that societies exist to this day that study the short stories and novellas as canon.  While most are dazzled by the deductive reasoning of the hero, I contend that Doyle’s greatest stroke of genius is Watson. It is Watson who lends the tales the semblance of fact with his offhand references to past cases and conversational, first person narrative.  He’s much more personable than Holmes, and ten times more entertaining.  If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the man never seems to get the credit he deserves.  It is unquestionably because of John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the best short stories ever written.

H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft was another short story author who used first person narrative to brilliant effect.  His narrators mentally deteriorate in the course of their stories – slowly driven mad when confronted by alien and unspeakable horrors.  I need to repeat that… UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS!  Only Lovecraft could mold such a seemingly quaint old fashioned phrase into a vessel of terror!  Read him, you’ll understand.  They invented the phrase “blood chilling” for this man’s stories, and if they didn’t they should have.  You doubt me?  Google the Necronomicon.  A book that people, to this day, still believe exists. And which was entirely a creation of Lovecraft’s imagination.  Convincing readers that fiction is fact is impressive in anyone, but particularly so when the author wasn’t even trying.

Fritz Leiber – Fritz Leiber is the creator of my favorite swords & sorcery buddy team – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. This dynamic duo were cast in the tradition of fantasy heroes like Tarzan & Conan (Fafhrd is a Barbarian & the Gray Mouser is a Thief and former sorcerer’s apprentice), but they take themselves a lot less seriously. Two Lankhmar adventurers who have seen better days, their luck going up and down with the whims of fate, they first meet after each loses the current love of his life. Rakish, if a little shabby, they get themselves into and out of trouble (and under various female characters’ skirts) with the kind of panache to make James T. Kirk green with envy. Old Gods, underwater kingdoms, magicians & thieves’ guilds all make an appearance and add to the fun. Leiber has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps the stories light, despite some dark happenings. There’s a silliness about these tales which is a large part of their charm. Originally published in those old 60’s & 70’s magazines with names like “Fantastic Stories” (it doesn’t get any booksexy-er than reading them in the original), all the stories are collected in paperback editions that are a little bit more attainable. Lucky us!