“I wondered what the value of truth really was, if getting at it entailed so many lies.”
I’m going to confess that before visiting Max Cairnduff’s blog, Pechorin’s Journal I’d never heard of Derek Raymond, dubbed the Godfather of British Noir. After reading the blog posts about Raymond’s Factory novels, I knew that a) I had to read these books, and b) there was an excellent chance I’d really, really enjoy them.
Well I just finished the first novel in the series, He Died With His Eyes Open, and I’m still a little stunned by the experience. I’m going to have to come up for air and detox a bit before moving on to the second in the series, for as Friedrich Nietzsche said: “When you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
So, what’s the novel about, you ask? The book begins with the discovery of the badly beaten body of a middle-aged drunk. ID in the pockets indicates that the body is what’s left of Charles Locksley Alwin Staniland, and the money found on the corpse argues against a motive of robbery. On the scene to recover the body is an unnamed police sergeant from London Metropolitan Police Department of Unexplained Deaths. Working at the London police station termed the Factory (and the name churns up images of dispassionate deaths & crimes that occur with alarming alacrity) in Unexplained Deaths, also known as A-14, is a dead-end job as far as career prospects:
“The fact that A-14 is by far the most unpopluar 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 Special Criminal Investigation Department, nor does the Special Intelligence Branch. We work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did. We have the lowest budget, we’re the last in line for allocations, and promotion is so slow that most of us never get past the rank of sergeant. Some of us transfer to other departments out of desperation, but not many; and those who do transfer, most do it sooner than later….No murder is casual to us, and no murder is unimportant, even though murder happens the whole time in a city like this.”
As the novel continues, this sergeant becomes the narrator and the protagonist as he tries to solve the savage murder of a seemingly harmless drunk. Armed with cassette tapes containing Staniland’s thoughts and scattered memories, the sergeant gets inside the head of the victim, and as he begins to know and understand Staniland–a sad, self-destructive man– he also enters aspects of the victim’s life: his disaffected family, former coworkers, and his strangely emotionally detached girlfriend, Barbara. Big, Blonde and Beautiful, well add another few B words to the description, and you’d be in the company of a woman whose cruelty is fed by love, tenderness, and vulnerability. Barbara is one of those toxic women, and indulging in a relationship with Babsie demands a poisonous, self-destructive urge in her lovers. They crash and burn while she emerges from the wreckage unscathed.
The sergeant steps inside Staniland’s mind so deeply, that the two men almost become one–this fusion is accentuated by the fact the sergeant is nameless throughout the text and also because the two men uncomfortably have some things in common. In solving the crime, the sergeant must understand the victim, and his Modus Operandi is to reach inside the fragments of the dead man’s past and sort through the pathetic details of a sad, sordid life. As readers, we accompany him on his dark, soulless journey of despair to the other side of hell:
“There’s a point where the string of the balloon breaks and it glides upwards to burst at that height where shape is not longer possible for it. Meanwhile to be an animal that thinks persistently in terms way beyond its lifespan sets us a frightful problem. Every day you amass knowledge in a frantic race against death that death must win. You want to find out everything in the time you have; yet in the end you wonder why you bothered; it’ll all be lost. I keep trying to explain this to anyone who will listen.”
The book’s title: He Died With His Eyes Open has both a literal and a figurative meaning. Staniland’s eyes were open when he died, but the figurative meaning becomes clear at the book’s conclusion. Dark, twisted and bitter, this tale left me feeling haunted–not just by the story itself, but by the slight feeling of contamination I still feel after turning the last page. One part of the book details the slaughter of a pig, and as someone who refuses to eat pork because I like pigs more than some of the people I’ve met, the descriptions of the pig slaughter were, for me, the most disturbing, but nonetheless essential, part of the book.
For those interested, my copy is published by Serpent’s Tail (a publisher who consistently produces excellent crime fiction) and the book contains a worthy intro from author James Sallis.