Pity, terror and grief

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.

How the Dead Live


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

29 responses to “Pity, terror and grief

  1. GB Steve

    I’ve been meaning ro read Raymond for a while and nothing you have said persuades me otherwise. Should one begin at the start of the Factory novels and work forwards.

    Also, this reminds me of Lovecraft, albeit in a grimer more engaged way. And probably better written too.

  2. Start with the first, definitely. The second’s the weakest so far, the ending redeemed it for me but it does have a lot of conversations that take a while to go anywhere. The first and this one are both very solid.

    He’s not as cheery as Lovecraft.

    Edit: You’ve probably already noticed, but I’ve also written up the first two so far. Also, I strongly recommend They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which I think is one of the best noir’s ever written, and it’s a novella as well which shows quite how much size may not always matter.

  3. I haven’t finished reading this yet but one thing that Self did say which struck me as completely correct is that Raymond is actually quite sentimental. And not in a good way.

    The first book is filled with a cynicism and anger about the world and a realisation that we simply aren’t equipped to deal with it properly except by blinding ourselves in various ways.

    However, slowly, this anger and cynicism transform into a kind of self-satisfied sentimentalism. A grumpy old man’s regret over the loss of old institutions whilst railing with impotent rage about the world we have.

    One of the main riffs in the second book is the tendency of the detective to be rude to his superiors and to call them idiots to their faces. Not only are there no consequences for these, but his superiors invariably wind up crawling back to him to help them with their problems.

    The third book opens with a similarly distasteful power fantasy in which the detective attacks a lecturer for daring to have an opinion about psychopaths that wasn’t formed by wrestling them into squad cars for a decade or two.

    There’s also something incredibly Thatcherite about the way in which Raymond harks back to old institutions (his sister, their church, the criminals who knew how to play the game) whilst reviling modern ones not because they’re institutions but because they’re not the right kinds of institution.

    In that opening scene, the bureaucrat responds by calling the Detective “impudent”. That’s like something out of the 1940s and as such it’s an utter straw man in terms of social criticism.

  4. I think Raymond is deeply hostile to Thatcherism, I think it’s one of the targets of the book actually. That doesn’t mean he can’t also be Thatcherite in places of course, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

    Rather, I think it’s about disgust, a disgust with a Britain that he sees as irredeemable. That’s contrasted with an augmented vision of a better alternative, but an alternative that is past, dying. [Edit: ie an alternative that isn’t actually available, it’s not a book offering solutions. The better past is only there to highlight the grimness of the present, it’s not a naturalistic device (or, admittedly, a wholly successful one as I get at when I talk about the over the hills and far away reference).]

    Besides, Thatcher hated the traditional insitutions, and they hated her. Her politics were radical, just not radical left.

    The bureaucrat bit isn’t a strong scene, in fact it doesn’t add much to the book, but I think it’s point is the emptiness of theory against the grimness of reality. The Britain the sergeant inhabits is that of people pissing against lampposts, beating up immigrants and robbing pensioners of their savings. Against that, an academic talking about what it means to be a psychopath is nothing, it’s again a philosophy of despair.

    For me, the book is filled with loathing, of Thatcherite politicians and new money, of then modern Britain, of a vacuity and lack of pity at the heart of society. It’s left wing, if anything.

    The stuff about the WWII veteran smacks of sentimentality, but I think the point is to contrast a Britain in which people cared for others with one in which they don’t, again a critique of then contemporary politics.

    The reason I thought Self was badly wrong though wasn’t that everything he said was rubbish, it’s that his core argument that the book ignores social context is wrong – the book’s in large part about social context.

    The thing with the superiors is a standard hardboiled trope that to be honest I find quite uninteresting, though it’s a good catch. It’s present in a vast amount of crime fiction and adds very little, it’s the crime equivalent of the brilliant yet maverick scientist in sf.

  5. Forgot to add, the blinding ourselves to the world is only part of the first book, I know that’s the main thread you drew out when you talked about it on your blog, but I don’t think it’s by any means the only interpretation. I think that also it was about the horror of understanding mortality, which becomes a key theme here again.

    There is a real sense here that Raymond has discarded vehicles like Staniland and is just using the detective directly, I had a choice of three different quotes talking about how the true horror is being intelligent enough to know you will die without meaning, and that was three of more than three in the book. In the end I only used one, but it is a key strand in his work, there is too the bit about blinding ourselves to the beauty of existence – the sculptor’s wife and here Mardy and his wife perhaps, but too there’s an awful lot about the sheer horror of death. That for me is the core narrative of the entire series so far, it’s an obsessive meditation on the horror of oblivion.

  6. Not sure why I thought the place was called Thexton by the way, it’s quite plainly Thornhill.

  7. I may have to investigate this series. You’ve made a compelling case regarding its interest. I am not a crime fiction devotee, but my fiancee love police procedurals and crime fiction. Plus, you’ve made it interesting by teasing out so many of its themes.

  8. My problem is with the harking back to a golden tomorrow. That’s almost a text-book example of reactionary thinking. It also puts his opposition to new money in a very different light.

    To see the Horror of existence is existentialist.

    To see the Horror of what the young are doing and talking about how much better things used to be is just being a Tory.

    Thatcher’s attitude towards institutions was largely opportunistic. She hated bureaucracy and attached herself to the rising stars of Robber Baron capitalism but she also refused to think about the private sector dismantling of the rail system or the NHS let alone the House of Lords or the Monarchy.

    I still think Eyes Wide Open is a genuinely great book but the subtle shifting of stance as the series goes on is definitely souring me on it.

  9. Not golden tomorrow… golden yesterday. That’s too much writing about SF that is.

  10. Kerry,

    I’d possibly recommend even more Laidlaw, by William McIlvanney. Laidlaw is also a tremendous work of hardboiled crime, and an examination of the responsibilities that come with being human in a world without purpose, but where Raymond doesn’t provide any answers in a way McIlvanney does – essentially asking us simply to care about each other.

    Which makes it sound mawkish, it’s not at all. Laidlaw opens with the rape and murder of a young woman, the book challenges by portraying the murderer as in some senses as much a victim as the woman herself, a product of a deformed society. In a way, the reader is held responsible, everyone is, which is powerful stuff.

    In the follow up, The Papers of Tony Veitch, an alcoholic tramp who was dying anyway is murdered. It’s represented as being as important as any other death, for Raymond death renders human life irrelevant, for McIlvanney our fragility makes our lives all the more important.

    Also, McIlvanney is a spectacular writer, mostly of literary fiction who only wrote one short crime sequence which in his view was a continuation of his concerns as a lit fit writer. He was asked to write more, but refused on the basis he had said what he wanted to with that character (there are three Laidlaw titles in total).

    Raymond has the element about the beauty of existence which Jonathan alludes to, and which he discusses in more detail in the comments to He Died with His Eyes Open and in an excellent piece on his own blog, and that’s not in McIlvanney, but a powerful moral intelligence is which makes it well worth reading.

  11. I think that’s a fair criticism Jonathan, that here he is in places reactionary. As I mentioned in the blog entry, we get told how young men like the unemployed guy used to have a purpose (which isn’t really true of course), then he sings Over the Hills and Far Away to underline it, then Raymond tells us what the song is. Equally, the old man who fought in the war is less convincing as a repository of something better than was the sculptor in the first novel, where he introduces a response to existence beyond mere horror.

    So some of the comparisons with an imagined past are a touch heavy handed, and like many reactionaries Raymond I suspect would have hated the past he here compares his ugly present to. Had he lived then, we’d have tales of wartime atrocities, spivs profiteering, soldiers haunted by what they’d seen and their guilt at surviving and some who had come back having found killing far too easy.

    In other words, he’d probably have a lot of similar criticisms of the Britain around him. For me, Raymond is a writer fuelled by loathing. The elements about the beauty of existence you pulled out from the first in the sequence were there, but not so much I think in the second and third (though the third does have a love story, but not in the end a happy one).

    I do think though this approaches Eyes Wide Open, the nature of the horror, the terrible truth of what’s happened, Raymond flirts with the risible and for me the risk came off, making it a very successful book.

  12. Guy A. Savage

    Absolutely marvellous review, Max. I’ve been thinking about getting back to Raymond for number 2 of the factory novels.

    I particularly liked the social commentary of 80s Britain and Thatcher. I wonder what the narrator/Raymond would make of Britain today? How could the vision become bleaker?

  13. I think he’d have hated whenever he lived, to be honest. Hypocrisy, venality, cruelty and stupidity have always been with us.

    That’s the thing with the reactionary element of this work that Jonathan refers to, it only makes sense as a counterpoint from which to criticise the present, there’s no coherent attempt to argue that past actually was better. If he’d been around in the 1940s, he’d have hated that. Still, yes, his commentary on today would be fascinating.

    I’ve been thinking about my opening para, I think it’s true for noir, not necessarily for hardboiled. I struggle to fit the holy trinity (Chandler, Hammett, Spillane) within the strictures of my opening para which means it’s at best only true for certain kinds of crime fiction.

  14. Guy A. Savage

    I haven’t read the second or third novels (yet) so I can’t really comment on the reactionary statement. At this point (with just reading the first novel), it’s almost impossible for me to imagine Raymond showing any sentimentality through his characters. That said, the sculptor was one of my favourite characters, and certainly the narrator seemed to admire him for his dogged determination to stick to some sort of ideals. Of course, that’s one of the spots where the idea about ‘blinding ourselves’ to certain aspects of life creeps in.

    re: the opening paragraph, I think you are right. It’s the moral dilemmas, the slippery slopes that create the best of noir/crime fiction. I’m currently reading Dead I May Well Be by Adrian McGinty. It’s excellent crime fiction, but there are no moral dilemmas in the novel. If I had to label the book, I’d place it in the hardboiled pile.

  15. Jonathan’s review over on ruthlessculture brings out the blinding oneself element more than I did, it’s worth having a read as he explores that theme rather well.

    One strength of He Died is that Jonathan and I took rather different things from it, both of which I think were definitely present. Good books tend to permit multiple interpretations, and He Died certainly does.

  16. Guy A. Savage

    I’ll have a look at ruthlessculture then. I expect these themes become more evident as the series continues, and that means I’m going to have to start number 2 soon.

  17. Actually, the blinding yourself to beauty theme is only really there in the first one. I suspect part of why the second and third haven’t spoken to Jonathan as much as me is he drew out that theme which then isn’t really continued as the series progresses, I was impressed by the theme of the horror of the knowledge of mortality which continues pretty much consistently.

  18. Hi Max,

    Followed you here from the Graun.

    I don’t think Dora Suarez is his best work, it’s the one that produces the most powerful reaction and you’ll need a strong stomach – it is an extremely unpleasant book (not a criticism).

    For me, He Died With His Eyes Open is the cream.

    I’m a big, big fan of Raymond, but I think there’s been something of a tendency to praise him to unrealistic heights, including a rather silly review in the Guardian of the republished Nightmare in the Street, a book Raymond himself called a failure – it is pretty bad. He has many faults (you’ve already spotted the repetition), and I have sympathy with some of Jonathan M’s criticisms above, although it’s The Sergeant who is sentimental and reactionary and why not? He, and Raymond, completely reject the society in which they live.

    I’m with you on the forewards (I haven’t read all the reissues cos I’ve got old copies), the foreward to He Died With is a recycled article more about Suarez. Self has a point though, is this really late 70s early 80s Britain? Cook/Raymond’s days on the streets were in the 1960s, how could he have his finger on the pulse from Soho’s literary demi-monde or France?

    His dialogue is often poor but when he’s good he’s really untouchably good, extraordinarily compassionate I think – I certainly don’t get the idea he’s anti-Thatcher though; his views on trade unionists for example.

    I enjoyed your review and hope you enjoy the rest of the Raymonds – I do still love them, they’ve been very important to me, and I constantly lend and recommend them. The ONE Raymod I’d love to see back in print is, alongside He Died, his best and that’s his memoir The Hidden Files, it’s really fabulous, you can get it on amazon for a price I can’t afford. I got it through interlibrary loans and hated giving it back – if you can find that do grab it!

    Many thanks,

    Colin, the Cardiff Drunk.

  19. He has what I thought was a very good dialogue sequence in this one, between the sergeant and his sister. Unusual for him in its realism, often dialogue in Raymond is more socratic in nature, a means to bring out a point – as here for example where Mardy’s voice becomes indistinguishable from the sergeant’s or Staniland’s. That or a stock genre diatribe against idiot superiors.

    I don’t think he does have his finger on the pulse of then modern Britain, but I still think he’s influenced by it and that he is here trying to address it (well or not), the criticism are ones of that period more than ones of the ’60s – the loathing of new money for example feels very ’80s to me as that’s when it was coming to the ascendant as does the stuff about the urbanisation of rural Britain (which I didn’t talk much about above).

    But yes, he’s not flawless, that’s true. McIlvanney approaches some similar themes, but perhaps with more humanity and certainly with a far more consistent political stance. I hadn’t remembered the anti-unions bit, or haven’t encountered it yet, but it doesn’t strike me as odd that Raymond could be anti-Thatcherite and anti-union, I think he was pretty much anti-human. He only prefers the past here because it’s gone, whatever the present I think he’s always hate it. It’s the compassion you note that saves him from mere misanthropy.

    Thanks for popping by incidentally, the comments are very welcome, particularly criticisms. I’ve really taken to Raymond, which makes countering views particularly valuable. Shame to hear Dora Suarez may not be the best, He Died with His Eyes Open is clearly the strongest so far (though I do think this one comes close in places) and I was wondering how good Dora would have to be to equal it. It doesn’t surprise me that it might not, it is a bit of a tour de force the first one.

  20. Colin, I see from your blog you’re into film noir (and into Chandler and Greene, good taste there on both). This blog is well worth a perusal in that case: http://www.noiroftheweek.com/ – it’s linked to His Futile Preoccupations which I link to here and which has a sister film blog. I suspect it would interest you.

  21. And many thanks to you Max. I’ll certainly try and take a squint at that blog. Are you a member of the Rara Avis mailing list? I used to be but lapsed of late, if not, it’s an excellent source on hardboiled and noir.

    Perhaps my view of Suarez is tainted by a weak stomach – I hope you love it, it’s very hard going though and I’ve only reread it once, whereas the other Raymond’s are regulars. A friend had the Gallon Drunk recodings with Raymond, and that’s very powerful too. I know Ian Rankin’s done some stuff with musicians, but I wish more writers and bands would hook up in this way – I believe it’s very rare, so you if you ever see it SNAP IT UP.

    I hope I’m not going on but I don’t see Raymond as anti-human – you note his compassion – I think he loves humanity and just wants and expects more from and for us. I would characterise him as a disappointed idealist and it’s from that the extraordinary sadness that permeates his best work comes.

    All the best – the weather in Cardiff is certainly Raymondesque today!

  22. Guy A. Savage

    Max: reading the posts from Cardiff Drunk leads me to ask if you’ve read The Last Lanelli Train and Swansea Terminal by Robert Lewis? Welsh noir from Serpent’s Tail.

  23. Guy A. Savage

    That should be The Last Llanelli Train.

  24. I think the reasons you give for my lack of engagement with the second and third novels are pretty much spot on. In the first book, the bit that stayed with me most is the section with the sculptor and his wife who is utterly crushed by the world, which is very much about the whole idea that we protect ourselves from the world by choosing to be blind to its horrors.

    He does have an interesting attitude towards work though. I see a lot of myself in his detective actually.

  25. Anti-human wasn’t quite right, I did say upthread he wasn’t misanthropic come to think of it, should have stuck to that. Disappointed is a better word.

    Guy, no, I’ll check them out.

    Jonathan, it only struck me due to this discussion, otherwise I doubt I’d have thought about that element not continuing. That, in a nutshell, is why I like it when people disagree, it draws stuff out.

  26. Guy A. Savage

    The mortality issue comes up with a vengeance in the Robert Lewis books. I thought they were really wonderful. There’s supposed to be a third coming.

    I shall continue the Raymond novels with these comments in mind, but I do have to say that for the first novel, at least, mortality seemed a prominent issue. It’s a peculiar thing to be a human and grasp the fact that we have to age and die and that this is supposed to be natural. Perhaps the issue of ‘blindness’ is just one way of coping with it. After all, obsessing about one’s mortality doesn’t exactly make for a cheery life, so perhaps, in Raymond, maintaining a certain amount of oblivousness is a necessary component for a degree of happiness.
    The slaughter of the pig seemed to be a powerful experience for Staniland: to slaughter a creature who sensed its imminent murder and who then struggled against it. For me, this passage was directly tied to what happened to Staniland.

  27. For me mortality is the dominant issue in the first book, it’s just not the only issue. The blinding yourself to beauty is there too, and that resonated more with Jonathan than it did me.

    The slaughter of an animal recurs as a motif in this one of course, I agree with your take on it in the first book.

    I’ll track down the Lewis, and I’ll be interested in your thoughts on the Raymonds when you get to them. I thought the second not as good, but still strong and its problems redeemed by its ending (which I can’t discuss for obvious reasons), the third I thought better than the second but not quite there with the first – it’s brave though, he risks absurdity here, but for me pulls it off and in so doing reminds us quite why death is so terrible and quite why the supposed terror of ghosts would be a comfort against the cold reality.

  28. Guy A. Savage

    Now you’ve made the third novel sound intriguing.

  29. I don’t want to go too much into that point for risk of spoiling the novel, but as I talk about in the original blog entry above there are strong elements of gothic horror in this one – elements which for me are among the novel’s ultimately more successful elements.

    The second’s not as good, but it is worth reading, I think you enjoyed the first for similar reasons to me so I’d expect your reaction to be closer to mine than Jonathan’s.

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