I knocked at a second-floor flat in a dreary house, one of two hundred in a dreary Catford street.

So starts the second of Derek Raymond’s factory novels, The Devil’s Home on Leave, uncoincidentally enough the second Derek Raymond novel I have read and while for me not as interesting as his first (He Died with His Eyes Open, which I have also written about here) I did enjoy it enough to order the two remaining factory novels on finishing this one.

He Died with his Eyes Open was an investigation into how one lives with the knowledge of personal mortality and the instrinsic meaninglessness of life. It’s answer, in large part, was that it didn’t much matter as any answer was itself meaningless. The Devil’s Home on Leave addresses some similar concerns, but looks more at questions of the banality of evil and at the sheer ugliness of much of humanity. Like its predecessor, it is a pitiless novel, one in which we are deeply flawed animals fuelled by guilt, greed, lust and fear. This is a theme that will later be picked up by authors such as David Peace, and Derek Raymond strikes me very strongly as a natural precursor to Peace.

Devil is a crime novel. It’s nameless protagonist is a police sergeant working in the Unexplained Deaths department in a police station known colloquially as The Factory. The department investigates deaths nobody cares about, here a murder of an unknown victim who was left neatly boiled and jointed in five stapled carrier bags in a disused warehouse. Within a handful of pages, the protagonist has worked out that this would have been a professional hit and who given the nature of the scene the hitman would have been. This is not, therefore, a whodunnit. It is, as is often the case with intelligent crime fiction, a whydunnit and even more it is an investigation into the nature of the sort of person who could do something of this kind.

Raymond’s protagonist is a man motivated by the desire for truth, by the desire to give voice to the nameless people whose deaths he investigates, and by his own crushing guilt over the death of his daughter at the hands of his mentally ill wife. He is a man utterly without personal ambition, notably so to the frustration of his superiors given his evident talent. Early on, as he once again argues with a superior we have the following exchange:

‘Anyway’, he added, ‘ if you will stay a sergeant you’ll always get the shitty end of the stick.’
‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘ but I think that’s the end where the truth is.’

The Devil’s Home on Leave is a reference to the novel’s other main character, the killer himself, a brutal and vindictive sociopath who as portrayed is profoundly human and yet who also is profoundly damaged and outside the normal range of human behaviours and emotions. This is no Hannibal Lecter, the killer in this novel is in many ways pathetic and violence for him is in part a way of avoiding acknowledging his own inadequacies. Much as He Died with His Eyes Open was a study of the victim in that novel, The Devil’s Home on Leave is a study of the mind of the killer. In He Died, we examine why a man lived in such a way as to lead to the terrible death he experienced. In Devil’s Home, we examine why a man lives in such a way that he can commit such a terrible crime. In neither case is the reader provided with much by way of comfort in the answers to these questions.

A key early entry into the mind of the killer comes through our protagonist, who on surveying the scene of the crime imagines himself as the killer and thinks in his voice (it’s worth noting that this was a much more unusual concept in 1984 when this novel was first published than it is today). This leads to a six page stream of consciousness, almost a prose poem, in which the protagonist deduces the identity of the killer (who is already known to the police and therefore whose file the sergeant has previously read in relation to other matters) while observing the scene. The killer thinks he is smart, indeed thinks he is brilliant, but his obsessive regard for detail and his desire to show how clever he is has led to his being as easily identified as if he had left his fingerprints at the scene.

The investigation then is why, why this victim was killed and who paid for that killing. This investigation takes the sergeant into a network of connections between traditional East End villains, high-security research facilities and ultimately connections into government itself as our protagonist finds that his crime is but a small part of a much larger offence. The investigation is interesting in itself, but it is far from the most interesting thing about this novel.

As this investigation develops, we learn of the sergeant’s own relationship with his ex-wife Edie, now incarcerated in an asylum where she barely recognises him and where the inmates are stripped (more by their own madness than any cruelty of the staff) of any trace of human dignity. After a painful encounter in which she screams and in which he notices, when the nurses lift her dress to sedate her, that she has traces of her own excrement smeared on her buttocks:

I went back to London. I thought, what’s the point of going to see her any more? She doesn’t know me.
She murdered our daughter back in 1979. Her name was Dahlia, after Edie’s favourite flower. Edie pushed her under a bus, like that, in the street, because the child had picked up a bar of chocolate as they went past the shelves in the supermarket and hidden it, and there had been a stupid row with the manageress. Dahlia was nine.
I choked on my grief behind the windscreen as soon as I was alone, a vague face among other faces in other cars in the heavy traffic.

The sergeant’s guilt at the death of his daughter, at the sheer pointlessness and stupidity of it, runs through the novel. A few pages later, haunted by the image of his daughter as he tries to sleep, he reflects:

Yes, there used to be dignity in life, and I would die if I thought that would bring it back. I often wonder what people think a police officer is and how he thinks, or whether they believe he thinks at all. They just see the helmet, or the warrant card, and trouble. But we take risks. Some of us go into places because we must, whatever’s waiting there. I would give my life to have my little girl back again, but all I can do in the anticlimax that life is without her is to do what I believe to be right in the face of evil. So old fashioned! But I have only dreams and memories of my daughter to fall back on now – dreams where I see her like a bird, flying free and happy in the face of my trouble.
Yes, I used to pick her up and sing to her before I had to leave and report for duty – at Old Street, that was. But I never managed to protect her and love her as I should have because I was too anxious for my career. So now I feel the arms of others round me in the place of her arms, and know that, because of my ambition, I went off to work that day and so let Edie kill Dahlia because I was too proud ever to admit to myself that I knew Edie was mad.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

Raymond’s protagonist then is driven by guilt, a guilt that has consumed him driving him to find the truth of lonely deaths and causing him to put aside all desires he might have had for his own life. He feels guilt for the death of his daughter which he failed to prevent, and guilt for all the other deaths before and after that he also failed to prevent. In contrast, quite intentional contrast I believe, the killer is a man wholly without guilt. A man without any conscience at all, touchy and proud and sensitive to every slight to the point that he will kill a man over an insult. He is in some respects the antithesis of the protagonist (though not neatly in all respects, the novel is not that pat), and conversations between him and the sergeant form much of the heart of the work as the sergeant gently applies pressure in the hope of eliciting a confession or a lead to evidence that could help prove the case.

As ever, I do not intend here to disuss the plot of the novel, in any event in this work the plot is hardly the point. Instead, as is typical of the roman noir, this is an exploration of frailty and ugliness. A banal brutality which can sometimes evoke pity (in the character of the killer’s own ex-wife, a drunk who lives in terror of his return, his relationship with her in some ways the mirror of the protagonist’s with his wife), but all too often merely prompts loathing. This is a work of profound moral disgust, disgust with humanity and with what we do to ourselves. Even minor characters are unsympathetic, a WPC is described as follows:

She was a hard-looking woman in her thirties with about as much pity in her face as an empty plate.

The landscape the characters walk through is as brutalist in its way as the people who inhabit it. The view from the killer’s wife’s window:

Outside it was raining bitterly across a barren park where the grass had been trudged away by the aimless feet of the unemployed until the ground was just mud. I got up and went to look out through the rain. Below me a man spread his rags to show his chest as if it were a really fine day. His red lips gaped open inside his curly beard; the mouth closed only when it encountered the neck of the bottle that he kept picking up from the bench beside him. Rain ran over him, sliding down his ribs, subtle as a blackmailer.

The few alleviants to the ugliness are themselves not exactly pretty. Early on a conversation between two officers about a man who murdered his girlfriend, ex-wife and daughter becomes a morbid joke due to the council failing to clean up the scene after the bodies were removed:

Anyway, nobody did clean up; that was why, when two squatters, a girl and a feller, broke into the flat, the girl had a heart attack.
‘Teach the bastards to respect council property,’ Bowman said when I told him about it.

Later a desultory conversation with a now crippled ex-officer reveals a common interest in literature between him and the proganist, an interest that only the ex-officer really has time for now that without his legs he is no longer able to serve on the Force.

As moments of light relief go, it is fair to say they are not as light as they might be. The novel also contains a moment of quite unintended black comedy, as two characters at one point discuss the possibility of the police being granted the power to hold suspects for seven days without charge. This is portrayed (rightly in my view, but I digress from literature there) as a massive breach of civil liberties. The unintended comedy is that today police can hold suspects for 28 days without charge and that powers of indefinite house arrest without trial exist and have been used in the UK. I suspect Raymond’s intent with the seven days scene was not for the reader to look back at what would now seem a blow for civil liberties rather than a blow against.

Which takes me to the part of the novel which is most interesting and which sadly I cannot really describe without ruining it for anyone who might read this and then read the novel itself. The end. Raymond has much to say about guilt and culpability, about responsibility, and much of what he has to say he works into the end of the novel in a way that has great power because of all that has gone before, much of which until then may have seemed reasonably standard crime fare. Unfortunately, and unsatisfyingly, I can’t really disuss how he achieves this, as to do so could damage its effect. Suffice it to say then that this is a work about human evil, and the killer’s evil so painstakingly examined during the course of the work is but one example of such and perhaps not the most terrible.

It’s hard to say one enjoys a novel like The Devil’s Home on Leave, and yet it is a satisfying work. Raymond has an excellent eye for his characters, which are convincing and drawn from life (unsurprisingly, given Raymond spent much of his life with villains of the sort he depicts). The portrait of the killer is detailed and persuasive, unlike say in Patricia Highsmith one never feels the slightest sympathy with the killer, rather he is a horrific figure that provokes loathing in the reader (well, in this reader anyway). The terrible guilt of the protagonist seeps through the pages, making him comprehensible while keeping him as far from the normal world of the reader’s experience as the killer himself. All this is accomplished stuff, and while I did not find it as intriguing as I did He Died with His Eyes Open my time on it was well spent. For the curious, by all accounts the fourth of the factory novels is the best regarded, and with that to look forward to I intend to continue exploring Raymond’s work (including, in due course, his non-factory novels).

The Devil’s Home on Leave

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Filed under British crime fiction, Existentialism, Hardboiled, London, Noir, Raymond, Derek

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