Dead Man Upright, by Derek Raymond
Dead Man Upright is the fifth, and final, of Derek Raymond’s Factory novels. It’s being reprinted later this year, after a lengthy period out of publication. It became sufficiently obscure that I’ve seen a great many discussions of his Factory novels which make no mention of it at all, which refer to I was Dora Suarez as the last of that sequence.
Suarez is often claimed to be Raymond’s best book. I disagree with that. It’s undoubtedly extremely powerful and an important work of British noir, but He Died with His Eyes Open is for me ultimately the more interesting work. Suarez though makes sense as a finishing point for the Factory novels. It’s so bleak, so mired in filth and horror, that it’s hard to see what could follow it. Anything after it risks anticlimax.
Dead Man Upright isn’t a bad book. It’s worth reading if you’re a Raymond fan, as by now I suppose I am, but it’s not a necessary book. Lots of books of course aren’t at all necessary. There’s no requirement that books should be. Being entertaining is often enough. Raymond though generally tried to do more than merely divert his readers and here the truth is he’s written a reasonably solid crime novel with some moments of genuine interest but one that doesn’t really say anything the previous four novels hadn’t already said.
Dead Man Upright opens about a year after the close of Suarez. The nameless protagonist is drinking with an ex-colleague, Firth, who was fired for drunkenness. Firth believes his upstairs neighbour, a man named Jidney, is a killer. Jidney is middle aged, appears to have little money and isn’t handsome but even so he’s gone out with a string of women. Each of them is with him for a few months, and then suddenly never seen again. The nameless detective is sceptical, but only a little investigation reveals that there’s something very wrong with Jidney indeed. Jidney may be far better off than he seems, the women often disappear after changing their wills in his favour, but most of all he has the dead eyes of a killer.
He was dissatisfied with his face today; it gazed at him, sallow and without expression. He pinched it and narrowed his eyes, but they – even though women insisted that they were ‘mysterious, an artist’s eyes, Ronnie’ – looked back through him flatly., at a flat world; he meant no more to his own eyes than anyone else did. Subaqueous, the eyes of a detached watcher in the depths of a lake, they were not interested in him but in the past; they were still reliving and cautiously catching up with the chaotic situation of a few hours previously.
He tried to correct their lacklustre gaze, but it was a waste of time. Their inky dispassion, his smile, his stereotyped views – mastered and learned by heart in jail – on art, death and relationships, formed part of a fixed set of gestures and passed for wisdom; any attempt to tamper with them contradicted his mask, which immediately loosened, threatening to slip aside like a scrap of plastic dangling from the ear of a drunk. The only reassurance he could extract was the knowledge that the mask had never betrayed him yet; it had deceived all his victims, beckoning them archly into a trompe-l’oeil parlour of sanity, when in reality he was staggering to keep his balance in the roaring slipstream of events, clutching his mantle of self-mastery round him in the frozen delirium of hatred, living to the limit only at the apex of the death he brought the other, and dead to the world thereafter, as well as before.
For the reader there’s no mystery here. The quote above is from early on and is from Jidney’s perspective. Raymond here is exploring the killer’s psychology much more closely than in his previous novels, where he focussed much more on the victims. In common with Raymond’s other killers though Jidney is a banal mockery of a human being who pretends to be like us so that we don’t see the true horror he represents. Jidney is a shell of a man containing a howling void, as intent on lying to himself as he is to his victims.
Raymond’s on familiar ground here, which is both good and bad. As ever some of the writing is extremely good. I loved this line for example:
Where he wanted memory, like a serf, to bring him his version of the past like a brand new coat, it would arrive instead holding something sodden and bloody which bore no relation whatever to the elegant garment he wanted to shrug on.
At other times though it’s hard to escape the feeling of having seen it all before. It is different to take the killer’s perspective, but it’s not as if he ignored their inner worlds entirely in his previous books. As ever the detective beats out the truth, haranguing suspects and generally making such a nuisance of himself that opposition is simply worn down by his persistence, but I’ve had four previous novels with him doing much the same thing. Worst of all was an occasional feel for me of Raymond-by-numbers, as the following quote illustrates:
It wasn’t a room that anyone with positive aims in life would put up with for long. The greasy red carpet was worn through to the threads and I looked down at it thinking that at least the blood wouldn’t show when someone cut his throat over it. The wallpaper was the shade of green that only said hello to people looking for a place to kill thsemleves; in fact it was the ideal surroundings for your end to introduce itself to you in the mirror set into the junk city wardrobe; I expected my doppelganger to walk through it any moment with the message that this was it.
That’s very Raymond, that’s the trouble, it’s a bit too Raymond.
Other flaws emerge. At one point there’s a fairly extended analysis of the killer’s handwriting and what it says about his inner life. The problem is that I find graphology as persuasive as phrenology, and the whole section just seemed a nonsense, and out of keeping with the detective’s generally much more matter-of-fact approach of just worrying away at loose threads until the lies unravelled and left the truth exposed. Later still the detective is given a deadline of 72 hours in which to close the case. That’s not coming dangerously close to cliché. That’s driving straight into it at full speed.
Around the two third mark, perhaps a little later, the book takes a sudden change of tack. In a call back to a technique used heavily in the first novel we’re treated to the killer’s own words (as we were to the victim’s in He Died), as the detective reads lengthy letters from Jidney justifying and explaining himself.
The issue with this is that Raymond has already established that Jidney is a narcissist and, like all Raymond’s killers, fundamentally a bore. He lacks the spark of life, and merely mimics it. His letters read convincingly, but in writing letters that convince as coming from a narcissistic bore Raymond doesn’t escape the obvious problem that the letters themselves are a bit boring.
Looking above I’ve been fairly damning. In a way that’s an overly harsh verdict on my part. If I hadn’t read He Died and Suarez then I’d have rated this much higher. Jidney is a genuinely chilling creation. Raymond creates real sympathy for his victims, making them flawed but human and wholly undeserving of the pain and terror that Jidney inflicts. Most cleverly of all Raymond doesn’t necessarily make them likeable. We don’t have to be good people in order to deserve compassion. We just have to be people. The detective is damned by all who know him as rude, aggressive, unreasonable, but the reality is that he is driven by a terrible love for all of us in our flawed futility. It’s not anger that makes him so bloody minded, it’s love, despair and an undending desire to save us even though we exist in a world that permits no redemption.
That’s powerful stuff, and as I say without the earlier books I’d rate this one higher. In the end though Raymond did write the earlier Factory novels, and this simply isn’t as good. It has its moments, but it has its failings too and while it didn’t deserve to be written out of his history as it was for a while, there’s a reason it’s taken a while to bring it back into print.
This partiular Raymond has been well served for reviews. There’s an excellent one here that I largely agree with, a more positive and again well written one here (I disagree with the conclusion about the meaning of the book’s final words, but it’s a point one can reasonably disagree upon) and a strongly positive (and very well argued) one by author Jeff Vandermeer here. I recommend reading all of them, as they each bring out different points. Perhaps that’s the best praise one can offer this novel. Four reviewers found different things to say. Even when not at the top of his game, Raymond still gives the reader something to think about. He still disturbs.