At its best, crime fiction is moral fiction. It is a forensic examination of the relationship between the individual and society, of our obligations to each other and of the gap between our image of ourselves and our shabby truth. It is a mirror held up, showing us the truth.
How the Dead Live is the third of Derek Raymond’s four factory novels, written in 1986 it is a scathing diatribe against the Britain of its day, married to an analysis of what it means to be conscious of mortality in a universe without purpose, and of the implications that has for our treatment of each other. As ever with Raymond, it is a novel obsessed with death and the knowledge of death, and of how that knowledge both grants and denies purpose to life. It is crime fiction at its best.
I read How the Dead Live in an edition published by the ever excellent Serpent’s Tail, here with a far from excellent foreword by Will Self who mentions that he only read the novel in order to be able to write the foreword. Despite his usual intelligence, Self bizarrely manages to miss much of the point of the work, to the extent that his main criticism of it “[Raymond] simply isn’t aware of the social context within which things happen” is about as wrong as it could be – the book is in large part precisely about that social context and about how in 1980s Britain it was undergoing radical change.
How the Dead Live was written only a few years after race riots became headline news in Britain, when debates were raging in the press and Parliament about how to deal with the widespread alienation Britain’s Black and Asian population were experiencing. More than once in the book, almost as backdrop, we see the racism these new arrivals face – an Asian man chased by Whites at chucking out time, an Indian told to his face he can’t buy property because the area he wants to buy in is for Whites only.
Meanwhile, in Raymond’s Britain, the old order is literally dying. The men and women who fought in World War II are the last of a generation of Britons who had a purpose, who had a place in a society that valued them. As they die, they are replaced by Thatcherite businessmen hollowing out dying communities, and by young men with neither jobs nor a sense of personal worth. Here the unnamed narrator describes an unemployed petty criminal living in a derelict squat:
Men like him had been part of our protection once. They were the descendants of men who had sat still, stroking their horses’ necks as they waited for the cannon to open up across ravines very far from Thornhill but whose spirit, stil the same, was now unneeded and abandoned.
A page later, the young man is singing “Over the Hills and Far Away” to himself, perhaps in case we missed the point.
Raymond’s narrator describes indifferent politicians who “blag serenely on, as though poverty, since they have no policy for it, didn’t exist”. He describes endemic corruption, greed and squalor, town centres filled with violent drunks and crass new money. His Britain is not a naturalistic place – it is ultimately a touch too extreme for that and the counterpoints between the old guard and the new disaffected too marked, but it is an image that I remember well from living through the time. There is a sense that Britain had come unglued, lost its way, and that all the future held was further decline. For some, Thatcher’s vision promised a way forwards, for many others however it represented instead a new viciousness and selfishness that cast aside what little good remained.
Raymond’s is a bleak and furious vision, but what it is not is a vision uninformed by the social currents of its time. Rather, Britain’s decline and the perceived moral vacuity of the new order is one of the book’s central motifs.
Another key theme of How the Dead Live, is a classic Raymondian argument about the nature of mortality and consciousness. For Raymond, being intelligent is a curse, allowing one to understand the inevitability of death and the futility of life, while the stupid continue without that burden and simply enjoy themselves. To be stupid is a desirable state, as the intelligent cannot avoid the truth and the truth is insupportable.
Sometimes I wish my mind would go away and leave me in peace; I would give all that I understand and feel and know, my very existence, to get out of my situation. I would grovel for the superb gift of stupidity, to be able to smile at my own death without knowing what it was, like the sheep did that I saw killed with my father when I was small – I don’t know what I would pay not to see through what I sense, know through what I know, finding only the rottenness of others. All our agony is a short wonder to be forgotten like a day’s rain, as when the lights go down after a play and it begins to snow outside the theatre. But in my role how can I ever say what I intend – for language, like life itself, has become irretrievable, hobbling after what’s left of nature.
Once again, the slaughter of an animal (here a sheep, in He Died With His Eyes Open a pig) becomes a key symbol of the horror of death, but here the sheep is to be envied for not understanding its fate.
In He Died With His Eyes Open, the murdered Staniland voices through his taped thoughts ideas of the horror of existence, of the overwhelming beauty of it too and of the terror of understanding it all. Here, the unnamed sergeant has in a sense become Staniland, the voice after all throughout is really Raymond’s and both Staniland and the sergeant are his instruments. Less successfully, near the end another key character, Dr. Mardy, voices thoughts on existence, death and the burden of intellect that are essentially indistinguishable from those of Staniland or the sergeant (I would have preferred the character to remain a little more distinct).
The plot itself is fairly straightforward, a woman has gone missing in the village of Thexton, has been missing now for six months. Local police conducted no investigation, no missing person reports were filed, the case then somehow came to the attention of the Chief Constable who ordered an investigation. Our unnamed protagonist is therefore dispatched to the countryside to find out what happened to the missing woman. In no short order, he has uncovered local police corruption, blackmail, extortion and (this being a factory novel) existential horror and, for a change of pace, gothic horror too.
I mention gothic horror above because, although How the Dead Live is very much crime fiction, it also borrows from the tradition of the gothic novel. The husband of the missing woman lives in a vast mouldering pile, a decaying house hiding a terrible secret, a place once bright and full of life but now decaying and foul. Parallels with Britain itself are I think not accidental.
As the sergeant investigates, he uncovers of course the rottenness pervading Thexton, the corruption in this New England. But he also uncovers something more, the truth of the house and of what happened there. As the house’s secret is revealed, I found myself feeling both horror and loathing, an effect all the more impressive in that it was born of understanding and compassion, not the simple fear of the unknown so commonly employed. The true horror in this novel, as in Raymond’s others but here so much starker, comes when we know the truth and realise how terrible and how pathetic it is. The horror is born of pity, not fear.
My conception of knowledge is grief and despair, because that has been the general matter of my existence.
Raymond’s prose continues to be precise and excellent, I loved descriptions like “his face was pinched and tired, his lips like a machine that refuses a credit card.” There is also a lengthy sequence near the beginning where the sergeant and his sister talk, Raymond here capturing the flow of dialogue in a very natural way. Descriptions too such as “The windows all had the same mail-order leer that made a flat, to its family, whatever its colour, seem falsely safe, and each was whitened by the eyeball of a Japanese lampshade.” show a nice eye for detail – when I left home those lampshades were so common that even though I didn’t like them I couldn’t find anything else for my first flat. In Raymond’s hands of course they become yet another symbol of decay, a blind eye staring out of a place order has left behind. For Raymond, the corpse is never far away.
By all accounts I Was Dora Suarez, the fourth and final of the factory novels, is the best of the series. If that’s true, I have an extraordinary book still ahead of me.