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 REPORT by Jessica Francis Kane (ARC)

“Is a mistake always an accident?  An accident always a mistake?”

I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report is getting a lot of buzz, but there is a low hum building around it.  And that hum should only get stronger in the upcoming months. It’s one of seven novels shortlisted for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize; it’s also scheduled to be a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection this Winter.  And because it presents as a work of historical fiction, it will appeal to the general reading public.  A more cerebral reader will  be intrigued to find that Kane has used her story to explore moral and psychological questions that remain relevant even in our current 24-hour news cycle.  In short, The Report has a little something for everyone.

Based on an actual WW2 civilian tragedy:  173 men, women & children died in the working class parish of Bethnal Green.  3 days before, the Allies had bombed Berlin.  London was on edge and expecting a reprisal attack at any time.  But the German planes didn’t come the night of March 3rd, 1943, despite the air raid sirens going off and sending the people for shelter in the underground tube station.  As the first people fell while descending the stairs  the already agitated crowd continued to push forward.  When it was over the tangle of bodies formed a wall that reached from the floor of the landing to the ceiling – blocking the stairwell completely.  Unbelievable as it sounds – the 173 deaths were all caused by asphyxiation.  Magistrate Laurence Dunne, a historical figure Kane uses as her protagonist, was assigned the job of finding out what happened.  The people demanded that there be an inquiry.

The story jumps back and forth in a time line beginning  on the day of the event and stretching out to the 30th anniversary.  A large portion of the text is dialogue.  Kane has an ear for the way people speak and Dunne’s interviews with the survivors read like transcripts.  There is a sense of the tedious sifting of information such an investigation requires as the same questions are repeated again and again, the answers varying depending on who is doing the answering.  These exchanges are some of the most enjoyable, and enlightening, moments in the novel.

30 years later we see Dunne on the other side of the desk, being questioned by a determined young documentary filmmaker (with a link to the tragedy) about what was in the final report… and what wasn’t.  As more details emerge on what has come to be called “The Bethnal Green Tragedy”, the reader can’t help being pulled further into the lives and motivations of everyone involved.  We learn that the neighborhood had a growing refugee population.  That there was an… if not a strong then at least underlying… anti-semetic paranoia in the community.  How much, if anything, did this influence what happened on March 3rd?

Kane does so many things well in this novel it’s hard to focus on just one.  Not only does she portray a stressed community who has been dealt the proverbial last straw,  she convincingly depicts individual reactions and survivor’s guilt.  I’m still haunted by the relatively minor character of the shelter Warden – a man convinced that the entire tragedy hinged on whether or not the light bulb in the entrance to the shelter was lit.  Kane also gives a moving description of the psychotic break of an already tortured young man unable to deal with the possibility that he, unaware of what was happening, was a part of the crowd pushing to enter the shelter. Both men are realistically drawn, persuasive because of the understatement Kane uses to describe their situation and  emotions.

Dunne looked down.  “Your parents said I knew the crowd wasn’t guilty.  Did Ada say that?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the opposite of guilty?” Dunne asked.

“Innocent?”  Under Dunne’s scrutiny, Paul couldn’t suppress the question mark.

“Well, they weren’t that, either.”

Can telling the truth sometimes do more harm than good?  Do intentions carry the same weight as actions?  What about redemption?  Or is justice black and white, requiring someone be to blame?   The book asks all these questions and more.  I recommend it for anyone with an interest in the London Blitz and the WW2 period.    Jessica Francis Kane has written a historical novel that takes the most basic requirement of the genre –  transporting the reader into another period – and raises the bar slightly higher for those who come after.

…talking to him was like talking to any young person about the war years:  They spoke from a background of black-and-white pictures, while your memories were very much in color.  They asked about the rationing, while you saw the coupons.  They spoke about the public morale, when what you remembered were the faces.  Try as they might, they heard only a chord or two, while the whole symphony still roared in your head…

The Report somehow manages to play for its’ readers the full symphony of motivations, emotions, personalities and perspectives; all revolving around a single, tragic event.  Yet the novel has meaning beyond the incident in Bethnal Green.  Combine that with strong writing, skillful plotting and absolutely brilliant pacing – The Report has the potential to be this Fall’s sleeper hit.  (And is a great pick for book groups looking for a novel with multiple discussion points).

Publisher:  Greywolf Press, New York.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 55597 565 4

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