We all have our weak moments

I was Dora Suarez, by Derek Raymond

Noir fiction is moral fiction. Noir is the examination of the horror under the surface of society, and a condemnation of the society which permits that horror.

I was Dora Suarez is the fourth of Derek Raymond’s factory novels, it’s the novel that reportedly led to his publisher vomiting on his desk when he read it (a story that, having read Suarez, I can believe) and refusing to publish it, it’s also the book that Raymond said broke him. It’s as black as noir gets, powerful and revolting in equal measure.

Suarez opens with a killer’s eye view of the murder of an eighty-six year old woman – Betty Carstairs, hurled through the front of her own grandfather clock, having interrupted the killer at the gory scene of the death of a beautiful young woman named Dora Suarez. There’s a terrible physicality to the scene, as Betty’s head hits the clock and the chamber pot she was carrying spills over the floor. There’s a sense too of the profound wrongness of her death. The narrator reflects on her life, lonely, filled with pain and illness, a small life with few pleasures. For all that Betty had little to live for, there’s the clear sense that she had the right to what little that was.

From the aftermath of Betty’s death, the novel moves to the killer’s reminiscences of Dora Suarez – whom he has just hacked apart with an axe and who while dying and afterwards he subjects to abuses that the book details but I won’t. After fully enjoying the results of his work, though self-critical for the messiness of the murder which wasn’t to his desired standards, the killer stops off on the way home at the house of a gangster named Roatta, a man who is unwisely looking to blackmail the killer for reasons yet unexplained. Flush from the deaths of Dora Suarez and Betty Carstairs, the killer makes short work of Roatta:

He produced a big 9mm Quickhammer automatic with the tired ease of a conjurer showing off to a few girls and shlacked one into the chamber. He told Roatta: ‘Now I want you nice and still while all this is going on, Felix, because you’re going to make a terrible lot of mess.’
Roatta immediately screamed: ‘Wait! Wait!’ but his eyes were brighter than he was, and knew better. They had stopped moving before he did, because they could see there was nothing more profitable for them to look at, so instead they turned into a pair of dark, oily stones fixed on the last thing they would ever see – eternity in the barrel of a pistol. His ears were also straining with the intensity of a concert pianist for the first minute action inside the weapon as the killer’s finger tightened, because they knew that was the last sound they would ever heard. So in his last seconds of life, each of them arranged for him by his senses, Roatta sat waiting for the gun to explode with the rapt attention of an opera goer during a performance by his favourite star, leaning further and further forward in his chair until his existence was filled by, narrowed down to, and finally became the gun.

When the trigger is pulled, the logistics of death are described in merciless detail – the brain, blood and bone marrow spattering the walls and furniture, a fragment of snot impacting on a table, what’s left of the corpse is described in all its horror and absurdity – Raymond refuses to look away. His gaze is forensic, as merciless to the reader as the killer is to his victim. In a sense, our faces are rubbed in the horror. It’s the same for the deaths of Carstairs and Suarez. Raymond denies the reader the luxury of a fade to black, we have to walk through the horror with him, making this in places a genuinely difficult novel to read.

Shortly afterwards came a passage which had me literally nauseous, a testimony to Raymond’s power as a writer and an effect I’ve (perhaps thankfully) never had before from a novel. Raymond again wants us to see it all, to understand everything, because only from that understanding can the deep moral outrage that fuels the novel emerge.

In the main, Suarez is narrated by Raymond’s usual unnamed protagonist of the factory novels. Suspended indefinitely after the last novel, he is brought back in to investigate the Carstairs and Suarez murders, and for once works with a colleague, an officer named Stevenson who is like a younger version of the nameless detective and is working the Roatta case. Suspecting a link, a suspicion confirmed by a photo showing that Suarez had worked at a club part-owned by Roatta, they work together to unravel the full monstrosity of Suarez’s death and indeed of her life.

In the first factory novel, the murder victim (Staniland) had left a series of tapes detailing his thoughts and philosophy. Here, in a similar device, Suarez has left a diary. The diary reveals that she was terminally ill, in extraordinary pain, that the night she was murdered she was planning to commit suicide – that she was interrupted in that goal by the arrival of the killer. Like Betty Carstairs, she was frightened, in pain and with little time to live.

The fact Dora Suarez was going to die anyway, and that her existence was filled with pain, is critically important to this novel. That’s because, by reducing the life she lost to a matter of a few hours spent in agony, Raymond makes the point that it doesn’t matter how much life was lost or what it’s quality was. The crime of murder is not a robbery of someone’s potential, to apply that test is to create a hierarchy of human worth, but murder is just as wrong whatever life a person had before them. The crime is that life matters, humanity matters, and the reason it matters has nothing to do with its quality or utility.

Raymond is excellent on the banal emptiness of the killer, on how his own lack of humanity leads him to destroying that of others. He is a sociopath, an empty shell driven by desires he cannot understand to relieve his own inadequacies in the blood of others. He is pathetic, and all the more dangerous for that.

… he was silent and well behaved in the boozers they went to only because he was trying to understand what natural behaviour meant through watching the people around him with exactly the same purpose and intensity as a bad actor, in an effort to make a copy of what he could never become.

The novel is, to a degree, a work of its time. First published in in 1990, AIDS looms large. Dora Suarez was in the final stages of it (and that too is described in all its ugliness), but her illness may have been inflicted on her, because it soon becomes apparent that Roatta’s club conceals a brothel catering to the wealthy and visibly infected who pay to sleep with infected women, as uninfected ones will not now go near them. The customers are in bad shape, often indulging in voyeurism (or the use of strategically placed gerbils), their own organs no longer reliable.

As ever with Raymond, there’s an element of excess to the novel. I saw it described somewhere as almost Jacobean, and that’s pretty fair, I’d go further and say Websterian (though I prefer Raymond to Webster). There’s a clear desire to shock, there’s a moral point being made and the gore isn’t simply gratuitous, but it is also gratuitous. It needs to be there for the points being made, but I had the distinct feeling Raymond also wanted to push boundaries, to write as repugnant a novel as he could. There’s a glee to his portrayal of the macabre that, while it doesn’t undermine his points, isn’t really necessary to them either.

As the novel continues, the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with Suarez, she becomes a symbol to him of that which drives him, of the quest for justice itself. As he reflects:

I thought as I drove that even though I was too late to save her, if I could solve her death, I might make some contribution to the coming of a time when such a horror would no longer be possible, a time when society would no longer throw up monsters.

I don’t know that I was Dora Suarez is better than He Died with his Eyes Open, but it is a return to the quality of that novel. I definitely enjoyed the intervening two, The Devil’s Home on Leave and How the Dead Live, but neither had the philosophical complexity of the first. I was Dora Suarez is good detective fiction, as they all are, but like He Died it’s also a lot more than that.

In Suarez, Raymond considers again the sheer beauty of life, its importance, and how that beauty is attacked not just by monsters and killers but by the small-mindedness of people who deny others what they haven’t the imagination to want themselves. There’s a vast anger running through this novel, but much of it is directed at those who take pleasure in the petty exercise of power. With so much beauty around us and life so fleeting, what is truly horrific is how many people do nothing with their own existences save live conservatively, hide within habit and bureaucracy and habit and refuse to see beyond their own routine. Our empathy for each other helps make us human, the killer having no empathy is no longer truly human, but the sometimes lack of it in the rest of us makes us all less than we could be.

In the end, if underneath the blood, fluids and horror Suarez has a message, it’s captured in this comment by our nameless protagonist:

… everything usefully done is done for others

I couldn’t agree more.

I was Dora Suarez


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

17 responses to “We all have our weak moments

  1. Tremendous review, wonderful analysis, Max. makes me want to grab the novel–which to be honest I’ve been dreading a bit due to the graphic violence and the story of Raymond’s publisher’s reaction to it.

    That’s a great line: “eternity in the barrel of a gun.”

  2. Habit is horrific – I like that.

    From your review, I gather that Raymond seems interested in the aesthetics of abjection – and how the abject puts into light what defines the “human.”

  3. GB Steve

    I’m working up to Dora Suarez but I was impressed with the first novel, as I am with your review. This book seems to plough a similar furrow to Bad Lieutenant in terms of the mix of gratuitous and necessary shocks, of perhaps revelling in pushing the viewer further than they would like to go.

  4. I thought that whole paragraph marvellous Guy, as was what followed it. I’d have quoted more, but it was already a very long quote.

    It is a challenging book, when I say it made me literally nauseous, I’m using literally there in the traditional sense, I actually felt rising nausea at one point. It’s by no means an easy read.

    only, I think there’s some truth in what you say, it’s an interesting take. If you’re curious, I’d read the first one – He Died with His Eyes Open, in which these themes are also present. I think there is a sense that the abject, the rejected, can be in some senses more human, perhaps even that their humanity causes their rejection.

    GB, not a bad comparison. I didn’t personally take to Bad Lieutenant, but there is a similarity in that there’s deliberate excess but not pointless excess. If you liked the first, you might not like the intervening ones (depends on your appetite for crime and noir) but I’d expect you would like this one.

    But generally, I didn’t quote any of the repulsive stuff, and in places it is distinctly repulsive…

  5. Powerful review, Max. I am wary of books containing graphic violence, as it is often difficult to perceive any motivation in the author above and beyond a willingness to pander to voyeuristic tendencies. You make a good argument for the necessity of the gore, but this isn’t a book that I could read if my morality depended on it!

  6. To be honest Sarah, if you’re not already into noir I wouldn’t start here, and if you’re concerned about gore I definitely wouldn’t start here. It has a purpose, but it’s gratuitous too, it’s somehow both.

    On noir, what I would recommend is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It’s a novella so it doesn’t outstay its welcome, it’s extremely readable, doesn’t contain any gore that I recall and is one of the best (if not the best) noir fictions I’ve ever read. It’s superlative, and like a 1940s movie it manages to say a lot without showing much of anything.

  7. Thanks for the recommendation, Max. Getting out of the comfort zone isn’t my greatest virtue, but in principle reading more widely could only be a good thing. I don’t read much that would be described as ‘genre’ and hate to contribute to anti-genre myopia.

  8. Max,

    I really enjoyed this review and was already to put this on the TBR. Then you recommended They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? which sounds like a better noir starter kit. I am going to look up that one first as your one paragraph description (including your trustworthy “superlative”) makes it sound necessary. Still, I am putting I was Dora Suarez on the longlist (and getting longer all the time). The quotes you’ve selected are seductive.

  9. Sarah, there’s stretching your comfort zones, and blowing right through them, Horses would be the former, Suarez the latter. Most noir is actually pretty accessible (doesn’t mean you’ll like it, but it’s not as a rule hard to read), but Raymond is an exception to that.

    Kerry, I have huge regard for Horses, if you go for Raymond though instead I’d start with He Died with His Eyes Open which I’ve also discussed here and which is a much better starting point than Suarez (for a start, it introduces the detective character).

    Horses is very brief, I think when trying another genre or style a brief introduction has many advantages, just in case you hate it…

  10. Hi Max,

    Found a breather from my work load!

    Been working my way through Derek Raymond’s work myself this past six months. I haven’t read Dora yet, but your review encourages me to persist. To be honest I’ve got mixed feelings abaout him. What I love is the way he uses the Noir formula and makes it vey British (in a similar way to which Melville applied the formula to French cinema). It’s fantastic to read material that frames London as this transient, murky character imprisoning the protagonists. The territory Raymond covers seems to evoke both weird nostalgia for 80’s Britain, and a strange timelessness. In this sense I think it evokes the Psychogeorgaphy movement (no wonder both Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit make reference to him frequently. Indeed, Petit’s ‘Robinson’ features a character literally based on Raymond himself (Cookie). In this sense he enthralls me.

    Where I have a problem with his work is the suprising retreat he often makes to cliche. Admittedly, this is a genre fiction and avoiding that is difficult, but it grates particularly when the unnamed Police Officer tries to display an acerbic, cynical wit – because the diaglogue here is always clunky and never quite as funny as Raymond thinks it is. There’s an exchange in ‘How The Dead Live’ when he first meets the officers he’s working with that’s frankly ludicrous, and he comes off less as an anti-hero, more a complete arsehole lacking both wit and intelligence. Indeed, dialogue I think is a major weakness of Rayond’s work.

    No matter – there is enough here to suffice and I shall continue to read him. Curious to know – have you read ‘State Of Denmark’ yet? Possibly his most ambitious.

    Here’s an article on Raymond from 3Am that i think you’ll find interesting.


  11. Richard,

    Good to have you back. Unfortunately, I’m getting killed on work myself presently, I’ve got some thoughts you’ve sparked on Raymond’s flaws as a writer that I’ll put up over the weekend either here or as a new post.

    Thanks for the link. I hadn’t seen it and it looks interesting.

  12. Richard,

    Thanks again for that article, it may make the basis of a future post.

    Raymond is a genre writer, for good and ill. The weakest bits of his books are the genre bits, but they’re not really removable, it’s a crime and an investigation and so there needs to be something on that, but it’s not where his talent lies.

    I think the main character is basically a dick, he’s often needlessly and preemptively hostile, sometimes in a way that comes across less as being world weary and more as just being unpleasant. That said, what’s interesting is it doesn’t actually help him achieve results, I don’t know how intentional that is but it is noticeable so my suspicion is it’s deliberate.

    In Suarez, he spends ages chasing an autopsy report, in his usual style resorting immediately to threats and abuse, but it achieves nothing. He gets it no sooner, he’s just pointlessly unpleasant.

    I’m not sure quite what the point of that is, but I’m equally not sure we’re supposed to think he’s necessarily in the right. He too is part of the problem.

    But yes, thinking about it my quotes from him aren’t generally of dialogue, it’s not his strongest point. This is particularly an issue for the second novel, which consists largely of conversations between the killer and the detective. I enjoyed that one still, but it redeemed itself as I recall late on after I’d got quite uncertain about it’s quality for a bit.

    Jonathan M incidentally had very similar criticisms to yours, he too saw a retreat into genre in a way that weakened the work. I think my main counter would be it’s not a retreat, it’s what it is, and it has therefore to work both as an intellectual work and a genre work, and Raymond isn’t as adept as some at mixing those elements successfully.

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