Tag Archives: Serpent’s Tail

There is no future in England’s dreaming

Nineteen Seventy Seven, by David Peace

David Peace’s debut novel Nineteen Seventy Four was not an easy read. It was bleak even by the standards of noir. The style was staccato, heavily influenced by Ellroy and the imagery at times flatly repulsive in its depiction of horrific acts of violence and abusive sexuality.

It had power though. It made me pay attention. It also brought 1970s Yorkshire to vivid life portraying it as a landscape of hard men and beaten women. Peace showed a thuggish and macho culture in which any softness was despised and in which brutality and corruption were rampant.

Nineteen Seventy Four was of course just the first of what later came to be known as Peace’s Red Riding Quartet. The quartet is a series of quasi-historical crime novels set in Yorkshire, each named after a year. The second in that quartet is Nineteen Seventy Seven. I just read recently Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan and with hindsight his influence on Peace was obvious. It was time to return with the Burn fresh in my mind and see how Peace held up.

For starters though, how does Nineteen Seventy Seven compare to Nineteen Seventy Four?

It’s still bleak.
It’s still staccato.
It’s still brutal.
Viscera and self-loathing drip from the pages.
It’s still bleak.
It’s still staccato.
It’s still brutal.

Peace still likes to make use of repetition. He uses words like hammer blows – a comparison I think he’d be pleased with (and given the subject matter probably intended).

1977 (I’m not typing it out in full each time) takes its inspiration from the real life Yorkshire Ripper murders and mixes real characters from that time with fictional ones. Peace keeps the timeline of the Ripper’s crimes, but changes the identities of the victims (though he keeps to the same categories of victims, mostly prostitutes and a sixteen year old shopgirl whom the Ripper killed after apparently mistaking her for a prostitute as she walked home late at night).

As the bodies mount up, policeman Bob Fraser and former-prize winning local journalist Jack Whitehead dig deeper and start to find discrepancies in the official version of what’s happening. Is the Ripper responsible for all the deaths attributed to him? Is there more than one killer? What’s really going on?

We’re in Ellroy-ian secret history territory here. The chapters alternate between Fraser’s and Whitehead’s perspectives (and investigations). It’s handy at times to keep track of chapter numbers, because their internal dialogues are essentially identical and when you’re following two hard drinking guilt-ridden men each sexually obsessed with prostitutes it’s easy to forget which one’s skull you’re inhabiting at any given moment. It’s fair to say they lived for me as a character. I just wasn’t quite sure that they lived for me as two different characters.

Fraser is married to a senior police officer’s daughter, and has a young son. His father-in-law is dying in hospital from cancer. Fraser spends his free moments with a local prostitute from Chapeltown which is a notorious red-light area. He’s obsessed with her and it’s affecting both his marriage and his job.

Whitehead is suffering the after-effects of the previous book (both characters were minor figures in that story). When he goes home the murdered children of the previous volume are there waiting for him. His line between reality and fantasy/hallucination is a thin one. He’s drinking heavily, and he too becomes fixated on a prostitute – this time a victim of the Ripper who survived her attack.

Whitehead starts receiving letters from what appears to be the Ripper (letters really were sent to the press and were thought genuine at the time). Fraser meanwhile spots some anomalies in a past case which lead him to suspect that some of his fellow officers may know more than they’re saying. As they both dig deeper the killings continue. Meanwhile the country at large prepares to celebrate the Royal Jubilee. It’s all very Sex Pistols (a band not referenced once in the book, but who could easily provide the soundtrack to it).

Here Fraser visits an old crime scene:

It opens.
I’m freezing.
Frankie lights a cig and stands out in the road.
I step inside.
Black, bloody, bleak.
Full of flies, fat fucking flies.
Ellis and Rudkin follow.
The room has the air of the sea bed, the weight of an evil ocean hanging over our heads.

The last line in that quote for me is key. There’s a physicality to the evil here. It sits upon the landscape. It broods. Before that though the rhythm of the entire section is discordant. Jarring. The majority of the book isn’t written in that style, but large chunks of it are and where Peace uses it the language becomes a battering ram shoving horror down the reader’s throat.

In terms of style Peace is effective. The book is hard to read in places. I know few other authors so able to show the sheer squalor and ugliness of these kinds of pointlessly violent crimes. Peace here wants to show what the victims suffer, and what those around them and those who investigate suffer too. He wants to show the humanity behind labels such as prostitute (though this is let down by the women in the novel all being very passive – he can’t here write women as strong as his men). He examines shattered lives and human debris.

Peace wants more than that though. He wants too to show how these particular crimes and these particular victims emerged from this particular time and place. He doesn’t just want to show the Ripper, but also the world that gave birth to him.

In this next quote the police arrest a man who may have evidence relating to one of the murders. This takes place just after Fraser has scared a woman into thinking he was going to rape her so that she’d stay out of the way while the arrest was made:

Back down the stairs they’ve got Barton outside, naked in the road, lights going on up and down the street, doors opening and then there’s Noble, Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Noble standing there, bold as the fucking brass he is, standing in the middle of the street like he owns the place, hands on his hips like he don’t give a fuck who sees this and he walks right up to Barton who’s trying to curl into the tiniest little ball he can, whimpering like the tiny little dog he is, and Noble looks up just to make sure everyone is watching and just to make sure everyone knows he knows everyone is watching and he bends down and whispers something into Barton’s ear and then he picks him off the road by his dreadlocks, twisting them tight around his fist, pulling him on to the tips of his toes, the man’s cock and balls nothing in the dawn and Noble looks up at the windows and the twitching curtains of Marigold Street and he says calmly, ‘What is it with you fucking people? A woman gets to wear her guts for bloody earrings and you don’t lift a fucking finger. Didn’t we ask you nicely to tell us where this piece of shit was? Yeah? Did we come and turn all your shitty little houses upside down? Did we have you all down the Nick? No we fucking didn’t. But all the time you’re hiding him under the fucking bed, right under our bloody noses.’
A maria comes down the street and stops.
Uniforms open the back.
Noble spins Barton into the side of the van, bringing him round all bloody and reeling, and then he tips him into the back.
Detective Chief Superintendent Peter Noble turns and looks again at Marigold Street, at the empty windows, the still curtains.
‘Go on hide,’ he says. ‘Next time we don’t ask,’ and with a spit he jumps inside the van and is gone.
We head for the cars.

For those who don’t know, when I was a kid in West London maria in that context was pronounced Mah-rye-ah, not Mah-ree-ah. They were the police vans used to take prisoners away.

The characters in 1977 are misogynistic, violent, racist and corrupt. If anything, the police are worse than anyone else. It’s a portrait without a hint of compassion. There is no humour here. Nothing redeeming. It’s just filth and shit and death and horror.

As the novel accelerates it becomes intentionally incoherent with it all until by the end I couldn’t quite tell what was real and what wasn’t, or indeed quite what happened. The ugliness washes over until everything is rancid and fevered.

And that’s where I come back to style and influences. Burn is a subtle writer. Peace, well, Peace has many strengths but subtlety isn’t wholly among them. Burn uses real events but at a remove, and he uses them to cast light on wider issues. Peace here is using real events but using them in part to explore those events themselves and the circumstances that gave birth to them. That raises an ethical issue for Peace that doesn’t arise to the same extent for Burn.

The characters here are mostly fictional, but these crimes did happen (albeit to different people) and the local police really did investigate them. I read an article in the Guardian a while back by one of those investigating officers. He complained that these books were a travesty of what occurred. He said that he and others worked hard and did their best to stop a determined killer and that they didn’t deserve the depiction Peace gave them or to be turned into monsters in his novels.

That’s tricky territory. I don’t know what happened back then. But I do know that real life is never quite this relentlessly terrible. Peace consciously avoids humour in his books (I’ll link to an article at the end where he discusses his views on that) but it’s a problematic omission. Were the police in the 1970s racist and violent? As best I recall yes they were. Was that all they were? I doubt it.

Nobody cracks jokes here. Nobody just helps someone else out. Nobody is generous. Yes, we lie and we cheat and we rape and we kill. But that’s not all we do. Peace charts a descent into hell (there’s a welter of religious imagery here and in a very real sense this is an account of two men’s fall into the abyss) but he has no contrast along the way and in that I think he undermines his own purpose. I think his world is so terrible I’m not sure I still recognise ours in it.

I’ve read a number of reviews online of this one and most are absolutely glowing. That’s not quite where I am. It has power and Peace can definitely write, but its monotonal grimness for me undercuts its reality and the Ellroy influence is still too obvious. Burn has wit and he lights the path to our damnation. Here at least Peace has yet to learn that.

Nineteen Seventy Seven (the cover there is taken from a recent tv series, sorry about that). I found online this fascinating interview in which Peace discusses his intent as an author with these books and why he avoids humour in them. Here’s a key quote to whet the appetite:

Crime is brutal, harrowing and devastating for everyone involved, and crime fiction should be every bit as brutal, harrowing and devastating as the violence of the reality it seeks to document. Anything less at best sanitises crime and its effects, at worst trivialises it. Anything more exploits other people’s misery as purely vicarious entertainment. It is a very, very fine line. Similarly, the sexuality in my books reflects the times in which they are set; I strongly believe that crimes happen at a particular time, in a particular place to a particular person for very, very, very particular reasons. Both Gordon Burn and Helen Ward Jouve in their excellent books on the Yorkshire Ripper have made the point before, but the Yorkshire of the 1970s was a hostile environment to be living in and especially for women.


Filed under British crime fiction, Crime, Noir, Peace, David

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

It was winter, and it was dark.

The Prone Gunman is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s most famous novel translated into English, though since only two of his novels have been translated that’s not perhaps saying too much. Both The Prone Gunman and earlier novel Three to Kill have been published in the UK by the always excellent Serpent’s Tail, but with different translators, The Prone Gunman being translated by James Brook.

Three to Kill took a normal man and explored how he changed when his situation changed, becoming a casual killer when removed from his normally bourgeois existence. It was Marxist noir, fiction where the psychology of its protagonist was merely a function of his socio-economic position, and so a dark commentary on the hypocrisy of society.

The Prone Gunman is in some ways a more ambiguous novel. Like its predecessor it is, in places, very violent. Like it’s predecessor, it makes no distinction between descriptions of people and of things, humans are given no more weight than rooms or vehicles. There’s an inescapable implicit judgement in that. Also like it’s predecessor it is at times quite simply a very effective thriller.

Where The Prone Gunman differs though is in its plot, which is bordering on stereotypical and in its slow subversion of that plot. The protagonist here is one Martin Terrier, a professional hit man working for a shadowy organisation known as the company. He wants out, but the company wants him to do one last job, and is prepared to go to terrible lengths to persuade him to come back.

As plots go, that’s pretty trite stuff. And for the early part of the novel we’re in very comfortable territory. Terrier carries out a hit, hands in his notice, casually breaks up with his then girlfriend as he is moving on and not planning to take her with him. He is a sociopath, utterly without affect, when it becomes apparent to him that the company is pursuing him and that those close to him may be tortured, even killed, it is a practical problem and nothing more.

That makes for a good thriller, but then The Prone Gunman goes further. Before too long (and I’m going to avoid any major spoilers here) it turns out that Terrier is a killer for a reason, he has a plan. He left a small town, a girl he loved, swearing one day to come back and have revenge on those who once mocked him and to take the girl finally for his own. Now, a career of murder behind him, he has enough money to make those dreams come true.

Unfortunately for Terrier, while he is a superbly effective assassin, he’s also just not that bright. In fact, one starts to suspect that he’s an emotional as well as a moral imbecile, stuck in adolescence and with a romantic dream fuelling him that bears little resemblance to reality. For ten years he’s lived with a goal in mind, the tragedy of The Prone Gunman is what happens when he turns back up expecting that goal now to be fulfilled.

I have to be careful here, there’s a lot of plot in this book’s 150 odd pages, and it would be very easy to spoil it. I’ll return to the issue of what makes Terrier interesting in a moment, but first I want to talk a bit more about Manchette’s style, the peculiarly passionless way in which he details a scene. The following three quotes are respectively a person, a room and a murder. Here’s a person:

Alex was a twenty-seven year old brunette with short hair, striking blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a beautifully formed neck and jaw line. She was tall with long legs and breasts almost as firm as her thighs. She was dressed now in a three-piece light-gray pantsuit and a white shirt. She had a white leather handbag on her shoulder and in her hand a rectangular wicker basket with a top.

What’s noticeable there is we know a great deal about what Alex looks like, nothing at all about what kind of person she is. It’s not just the female characters that are treated this way, it’s not a question of simply treating women as objects, Manchette treats everyone as objects. The men’s descriptions are equally dispassionate.

Here we have a room:

Terrier took his hands out of his pockets, turned his back to Félix, and went into the house, going directly into the main room, where there was a dining nook, a living area, and a convertible sofa where visiting friends could sleep. The walls were made of rough boards coated with a clear varnish, most of the furniture was rustic and old, and here and there old copper utensils decorated the place. In the hearth burned a wood fire that Félix had lighted a little while before and stoked with a copper toasting fork some sixty centimeters long that he had purchased the year before at an antiques shop in Ireland.

There’s not much difference in tone between the passage describing a beautiful woman, and that describing a fairly expensive but otherwise ordinary living room. And here we have a murder:

Their eyes met. Dubofsky opened his mouth to shout. Terrier quickly shot him once in his open mouth and again at the base of his nose.
At the discreet sound of these shots, the redhead turned. Terrier also turned, and they found themselves face to face just as Dubofsky’s head, which was split open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of a hard-boiled egg, hit the sidewalk with a squishy sound. Terrier took two steps forward, extended his arm, put the silencer against the girl’s heart, and pressed the trigger once. The girl flew back, her intestines emptying noisily, and fell dead on her back. Terrier got back in the Bedford and left.

That’s actually a very chilling sequence, but the point is it’s delivered in much the same calm voice as everything else. Part of what makes Manchette effective as a writer is his flatness of style, none of it really matters. It’s all just objects and forces in motion, recorded equally and without distinction.

The other interesting thing with Manchette is how deeply cinematic he is, not in the sense of high octane action (though this book does contain some fairly over the top sequences), but rather in that his gaze is an external one. We don’t know what Terrier or anyone else thinks, we don’t know what the author thinks, we merely know what is observed and plainly recounted to us. The author’s eye is a camera, recording without judgement or interpretation, as a reader we must work out for ourselves what is signified by the things we see. This makes Manchette a disquieting writer, his scenes are often ambiguous, doubtful, his refusal to attach significance to people or events leaves the reader devoid of clues normally present.

Manchette uses this most effectively in this book in his descriptions of Terrier himself. At times the writing goes into close up, we see Terrier’s expressions and reactions, but without explanation. Here’s some brief examples. In this first, he’s had a setback:

He seemed to reflect for a moment. He did not seem shocked. Perhaps he experienced a little sadness. Certainly he must have been thinking, for his face was screwed up in concentration.

In this second, he’s suffered a major blow, a disaster for his plans:

Terrier tossed what he was holding onto the pillow and abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed, crossing his gloved hands over his stomach. He leaned forward and gave a long sigh. His mouth was open and he blinked repeatedly. He seemed to calm down after a moment. He got back up.

And here, after extraordinary danger and hair’s-breadth escape (possibly only temporary), he learns that he may have been set up (I assure you, in a novel like this that’s really not a spoiler):

His haggard face at first registered great perplexity; then it registered worry, thoughtfulness or whatever other movements of consciousness that might cause his face to look as it did.

There’s two things going on here, firstly that cinematic eye I spoke of above, and secondly a refusal to give the reader access to the omniscience of the author. Manchette must have an idea what Terrier is thinking, but he doesn’t share it with us, we can only make guesses.

As the novel continues, Terrier’s character becomes more absurd, in a way pitiful, though never less competent an assassin. I can’t detail too much how Terrier’s plans unravel, but it’s fair to say his old love isn’t as he remembered her those many years ago, their relationship is not what he might wish, by the end his whole situation is descending into tragic farce. He starts as a stereotypical cold-blooded killer, he ends with us understanding that he was a highly efficient murderer but a deeply deficient adult human being, and those around him are not really much better. He wants to leave his life, to recapture a dream from adolescence, but as one character angrily says to him, “There’s nowhere to go.”

Manchette’s book is in part I suspect a satire on the very type of novel it starts out being. The cliché intentional as he goes on to tear down that which he has set up.

For all that, I didn’t like this as much as Three to Kill. My impression is that this is generally the more highly regarded novel, and as a pure thriller it probably is the better work, but Three to Kill raised questions about what makes us who we are that I thought challenging and disturbing. The Prone Gunman subverts its own genre, but while it does still cause the reader to doubt their own certainties for me at least it doesn’t do so quite as effectively as that earlier work.

The Prone Gunman


Filed under Crime, French, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

The social relations of production

Three to Kill is a 1976 slice of extraordinarily black French noir fiction, written by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated in the Serpent’s Tail edition by Donald Nicholson-Smith. It was brought to my attention by Guy Savage over at the His Futile Occupations blog, here. There’s good detail there on the place of Manchette within French literary traditions, which I don’t plan to repeat here but do recommend.

The essence of noir is the examination of the role of the individual within society, a moral examination. In Three to Kill, that examination takes the form of an inquiry into the way in which individuals are shaped by the social and economic forces surrounding them, the way in which ultimately individuals are a product of those forces (the novel’s philosophy is distinctly Marxist).

Plotwise, the novel is simple. Georges Gerfaut is a mid-level manager who is driving home one evening when he sees what appears to be an accident. Fearful that he will be reported if he drives by without helping, he stops, and takes an injured man to hospital (though begrudgingly so, due to the risk of blood getting on his car seats). Georges does not stay to give his details at the hospital, leaving before they can be obtained, and soon after goes to holiday at the seaside with his wife and daughters. There, two hit men try to murder him, and Georges ends up on the run, alienated from his previously comfortable life and determined at all costs to remain alive.

The above synopsis makes this sound like a suspense novel. However, the novel opens after these events (then jumps back to just before they started), and explains within the first two pages that Georges has killed at least two men. As Georges is alive to open the novel and there were two hit men men pursuing him we have a good idea what must happen. The point then is not whether Georges survives, whether the hit men succeed. The point is what Georges is and what makes him what he is.

I’ll return to that in a moment, first though I’d like to quote the opening chapter of the novel, a brief passage that immediately set a profoundly unsettling tone:

And sometimes what used to happen was what is happening now: Georges Gerfaut is driving on Paris’s outer ring road. He has entered at the Porte d’Ivry. It is two-thirty or maybe three-fifteen in the morning. A section of the inner ring road is closed for cleaning, and on the rest of the inner ring road traffic is almost nonexistent. On the outer ring road there are perhaps two or three or at the most four vehicles per kilometer. Some are trucks, many of them very slow moving. The other vehciles are private cars, all travelling at high speed, well above the speed limit. This is also true of Georges Gerfault. He has had five glasses of Four Roses bourbon. And about three hours ago he took two capsules of a powerful barbiturate. The combined effect on him has not been drowsiness, but a tense euphoria that threatents at any moment
to change into anger or else into a kind of vaguely Chekhovian and essentially bitter melancholy, not a very valiant or interesting feeling. Georges Gerfault is doing 145 kilometers per hour.

Georges Gerfaut is a man under forty. His car is a steel-gray Mercedes. The leather upholstery is mahogany brown, matching all the fittings of the vehicle’s interior. As for Georges Gerfaut’s interior, it is somber and confused; a clutch of left-wing ideas may just be discerned. On the car’s dashboard, below the instrument panel, is a mat metal plate with Georges’s name, address and blood group engraved upon it, along with a piss-poor depiction of Saint Christopher. Via two speakers, one beneath the dashboard, the other on the back-window deck, a tape player is quietly diffusing West Coast style jazz: Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre, Chico Hamilton. I know, for instance, that at one point it is Rube Bloom and Ted Koehler’s “Truckin'” that is playing, as recorded by the Bob Brookmeyer Quintet.

The reason why Georges is barrelling along the outer ring road, with diminished reflexes, listening to this particular music, must be sought first and foremost in the position occupied by Georges in the social relations of production. The fact that Georges has killed at least two men in the course of the last year is not germane. What is happening now used to happen from time to time in the past.

Note the uncertainty in that description. What time is it? How many vehicles are there? How many men, exactly, did Georges kill? There is no narrator, the voice we hear is the author’s, the novel is obviously his own creation so clearly the uncertainties in this section are deliberate. I found this a disquieting opening, a note of ambiguity already present, although too it is undeniably cinematic, easy to visualise.

Marchant employs a curiously dispassionate prose style, he writes without affect, lavishing as much care on the description of everyday objects as he does people’s bodies or the people themselves. There is a coldness to the descriptions, individuals, like things, are objects which have a nature and a role. Brand names are always cited, the label given a thing is as important as the thing itself. It is reminiscent in this of the much later US novel American Psycho, though Three to Kill is better written and without the sadism of Ellis’ novel which can make it ultimately an unpleasant read (American Psycho for me in any event becomes fatally flawed when it is made explicit, rather than ambiguous, that Bateman is in fact a killer and not merely a fantasist).

Recrossing the room, he crushed his cigarette out in an alabaster ashtray, which he took back with him to the sofa, then he sat down again and lit another Gitane filter with his Criquet lighter. The quadrophonic speakers softly dispensed soft music. Gerfaut smoked and contemplated the living room, only a portion of whose lighting, the dimmest, was on at present. An elegant penumbra consequently enveloped the armchairs and matching sofa; the coffee table,; the off-white plastic cubes bearing a cigarette box, a scarlet plastic lamp in the form of a mushroom, and recent issues of L’Express, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde, Playboy (American edition), L’Écho des Savane, and other periodicals; the record cabinets containing four or five thousand francs’ worth of classical, opera and West Coast jazz LPs; and the built-in teak bookshelves with several hundred volumes representing the finest writing ever produced by humanity and a fair amount of junk.

That last phrase by the way, “the finest writing ever produced by humanity and a fair amount of junk”, I suspect I’m far from alone in recognising my own shelves in that. That aside, however, what we have here are the trappings of a bourgeois lifestyle – a comfort taken in the material, in its quality, it’s evidence of good taste and in the expense and therefore success it represents. By contrast, the hit men who pursue him live out of hotel rooms, their possessions kept in bags in the rear of their car. Georges is defined by his things, as perhaps are they too, for Manchette describes in equal detail the tools of their particular trade.

Manchette’s emotionless, flatly descriptive, style extends to the novel’s action sequences too. This is a novel which contains scenes of shocking violence, described in the same tone as Manchette describes a stereo system or a domestic argument.

The Lancia turned on a dime and drove into the gas station via the exit. The car sprang towards Gerfaut, who pulled the trigger of the automatic. The Lancia’s windshield exploded. At the same time, Gerfaut jumped back, stumbled, and fell hard against a coffee machine, bruising his back agonizingly. The bright red car bore down on him, rocking and pitching. Gerfaut fled for his life, but the Lancia swerved and accelerated, threatening to smash Gerfaut into the office window. Gerfaut pirouetted away, but the car’s left headlight struck him glancingly on the buttock and catapulted him across the cement on his belly. The Lancia utterly demolished the office window. With a thunderous roar, huge pieces of broken plate glass, road maps, toolboxes, cans of oil, lightbulbs, and cartoony promotional figures made of wire and latex were hurled in every direction.

Even amidst the chaos and danger of this scene, Marchant takes the time to itemise the objects at hand, to list them one by one – his eye as a novelist like the eye of a camera – recording what is present without judgement of importance.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear Gerfaut was not always a bourgeois, that he is in fact a ’68er (and who in France wasn’t? I sometimes suspect there are people born in the ’70s who claim to have been on the Paris barricades in ’68). He has friends who were involved in struggles against the police in which hundreds of Algerians were killed. Few of them are now political, but only Georges has completely adopted the lifestyle he once presumably detested. Soon after the opening, an old comrade now a trade union organiser genially refers to Georges as a sell-out, as the two of them share a whisky. Indeed, it is worth noting that the whole backdrop of the novel is one of industrial unrest, strikes, labour activism, a whole strata of society keen to destroy capitalism and bring down men like Georges and all he stands for. Georges was once one of them, but his situation changed and with it his outlook.

Which takes me to another key theme, Georges’ plasticity as an individual. When Georges’ situation changes, so does he. When he is a comfortable manager, he lives as such and thinks as such, vaguely unhappy but making no move to change his situation. When he is forced to go onto the run, he adapts swiftly, adopting the lifestyle of a fugitive with ease and leaving behind his wife and two daughters with barely a second thought, changing his life as easily as he discards a pair of broken shoes. When Georges is forced to kill, he becomes a killer just as readily, and just as much without thought. He is a product of his circumstance, an expression of the social means of relation.

Georges’ is not a naturalistic portrait, rather it is a Marxist analysis of the individual as an economic and social unit. Georges sees himself through the prism of received experience, understanding his own adventures at first as if he were himself a character in a novel or film, it is only as hunger and exposure begin to threaten his survival he starts to understand the difference between his narrative of his flight and the grim reality. As he does so, he becomes less reflective, more a man of action and necessity, no longer a product of the class that bore him. Gerfaut becomes a woodsman and hunter, acclimatises himself without difficulty to life in a small mountain cottage with an old man for company. Reduced to simple circumstances, he becomes a simple man.

Gerfaut made himself useful by running little errands in the village; he would pick up tobacco for instance, or Riz la Croix cigarette papers, or lighter fluid when the need arose. Occasionally, at the café-tabac, he would glance through the regional paper, Le Dauhpiné Libéré, to see what was happening in the world. Sporting events took up as much space as ever, Third World riots, famines, floods, epidemics, assassinations, palace revolutions, and local wars still followed one another in quick succession. In the West the economy was not working well, mental illness was rife, and social classes were still locked in struggle. The Pope deplored the unrestrained hedonism of the age.

Georges is firmly portrayed as an example of his class and situation, his enemies are less clear cut, but are perhaps themselves examples of another form of enemy of the working class. One is a retired Dominican officer in hiding whom somehow Georges has crossed, the others are two hit men sent after Georges. We see the soldier’s solitary domestic routine, the hitmen’s friendship and casual brutality, they are monsters, but like Georges they are simply presented as they are, without further comment. The Dominican helped crack down on suspected Leftists in his homeland, “persons suspected of collusion with the class enemy”, the hit men now serve to carry out his wishes in the US (perhaps themselves an example of false class consciousness, but I go there beyond my knowledge of Marxist theory).

Whatever the characters’ individual traits, their collision here is a class collision. It is a situation where a man is taken from his bourgois comfort and exposed to the brutal realities of class struggle, and who when so taken ceases almost immediately to be an intellectual and a productive member of ordinary society and instead becomes as ruthless as those who hunt him.

This is a well and leanly written novel, quintessential noir in its critique of a society and a way of life. It is disquieting in its giving the same priority to the description of a woman’s stomach as it does to a glass of whisky or a bullet tearing through a person’s side, all of them illustrated with the same precision and lack of compassion. It is alien too in its explicitly Marxist stance, with vast dispassionate economic forces shaping human lives as effortlessly as a car factory shapes the products it spits forth. Sadly, it is one of only two by Marchant that have been translated into (American, if it matters) English. I intend to pick up the other without delay.

Three to Kill


Filed under Crime, French, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

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

The coke sweat had been dutifully airbrushed from the mayor’s forehead; only a contaminated grin remained

A Firing Offence is the 1992 first novel of George Pelecanos, later to become (relatively) well known as a scriptwriter for The Wire. It forms the first of his three part Nick Stefanos series, a trio of novels dealing with the exploits of (apparently fairly autobiographical in terms of character) D.C. based private detective Nick Stefanos.

After finishing the Stefanos series, Pelecanos went on to write his “D.C. Quartet”, an apparently much more ambitious and accomplished series of novels. It is not, therefore, the Nick Stefanos novels for which Pelecanos is now best known, they rather represent him finding his voice as a writer. That said, while it’s fair to say A Firing Offense isn’t terribly ambitious in scope it is a solid and enjoyable work of crime fiction and having read it I do intend to read the other two in the Nick Stefanos series before moving on to the D.C. Quartet and his other works.

So, enough of what it’s not. What is it? A Firing Offense is the story of how Nick Stefanos, a bored Advertising Director for Nutty Nathan’s chain of consumer electronics stores, agrees to help find a missing employee – a 19 year old kid who Nick briefly knew and who reminded him of his own pre-corporate self. Along the way, in fine hardboiled tradition, Nick gets beaten up, beats someone up, gets in a firefight and generally asks a lot of questions of a lot of people, some of whom aren’t too happy about answering. In terms of structure, it’s very much in the Chandler/Hammett vein, Nick asks around, puts two and two together, and knows he’s on the right track because people beat him up for being on it.

Where A Firing Offense is unusual however, is in its pacing and in its portrayal of the world of work – in particular the worlds of crummy office jobs and of working a salesfloor. This is a 216 page novel, for about the first hundred of those pages Nick is pulling down his job at Nutty Nathan’s and his enquiries into the missing boy are very much a sideline, we therefore spend a great deal of time seeing what it’s like to be an advertising director. In order to free up time to look for the kid Nick goes to work out of a local branch outlet, and so we see what it’s like to work a sales floor. Almost half the book then is not so much Nick running after bad guys, as Nick drinking too much and putting in a mediocre performance at a mediocre job, while his friends and colleagues mostly do likewise.

Generally, fiction deals poorly with the world of work, I’m not sure why, perhaps few authors have experienced it and those who did hated it, after all had they loved it they wouldn’t have left to become authors. Here, however, we have overpromoted management, bored employees, people watching the clock until they can go home, the world of work in all its tedious drudgery. It’s a marvellous portrait, not least when Nick reaches the sales floor and we see the various ruses and scams the salesmen pull to ensure they get the plum customers (those looking for TVs or steroes rather than say radio alarms) and how they convince them not to buy the best TV for them but the ones with the highest commission for the salesman, then making some extra on top by selling unnecessary warranties and parts insurance.

Lloyd was still with his customer, an older woman who seemed to be edging away from him in fear. I walked over to McGinnes, who was scribbling seemingly unrelated letters and numbers onto the sales tags.
‘You remember the system?’ he asked, continuing his markings.
‘Refresh my memory.’
‘The first two letters in the row are meaningless. The next set of numbers is the commission amount, written backwards. The final letter is the spiff code [a sales bonus], if there is a spiff. A is five, B is ten, C is fifteen and so on. So, for example, the figure on this tag, XP5732B means twenty-three seventy-five commission with a ten dollar spiff. That way, you’re pitching the bait that doesn’t pay dick, you look right beside it on the next model, you see what you get if you make the step, in black and white. ‘ He stepped back to admire his handiwork.
‘Just in case one of these customers asks, so we keep our stories straight, what do we tell them the numbers mean?’
‘Inventory control codes, he said with a shrug.

Shortly before this little exchange, we spend over a page and a half watching McGinnes, the best salesman on the floor, convince an old man who’s come in to buy the advertised special offer to upgrade to a much more expensive set, in part on the basis that it has a high IS (internal spiff, the customer obviously having no idea what that means) and by such tricks as putting a lousy aerial on the set the customer had originally intended to buy – all paired with a folksy patter and an ability to come from whatever part of the US the customer hails from. It’s a marvellous sequence, fun to read and really brings to life the sleazy ambience of the Nutty Nathan’s salesfloor.

The salesmen themselves are from the Glengarry Glen Ross school of charm, swearing heavily, drinking extraordinary amounts (including during the working day) and in the case of McGinnes taking copious quantities of drugs as well. It’s a vision of a sort of retail hell, a working environment so unbearable that only by mocking their customers and deadening their senses can they make it through the day. Competition for commissions is high, with the hapless Lloyd kept on primarily to deal with the low value items nobody else wants to touch, it’s a profoundly ruthless environment and Nutty Nathans becomes a sort of microcosm of the wider city of DC, a place drowning in drink and narcotics in which nobody is really clean.

As noted above, Pelecanos spends around 100 pages of the book, almost half, on Nick’s life at work and the people he knows there. During this half, pacing is carefully gradual, with Nick starting to get deeper into his investigation, but the bulk of his activity still centring around his normal life. All this comes, however, with undertones of menace because on page 2 we are told how the story will end: “with the sudden blast and smoke of automatic weapons, and the low manic moan of those who were about to die.” That means, during this entire 100 pages of quotidiana we’re aware that by the end of the book people will have died in terrible violence, once we’re past the halfway mark we start to accelerate to that end, but it’s a measured acceleration and the drive from normal life to automatic weapon fire and painful death is always a controlled one (for the reader anyway, not so much for Nick).

Pelecanos then brings the world of work to life, and shows a real skill at pacing, where he also shows real skill is in his descriptions. Here we have Nick’s favourite lunch spot:

In the Good Times Lunch an industrial upright fan stood in the rear, blowing warm air towards the door. Malt liquor posters hung on the walls, showing busty, light-skinned women held by mustachioed black movie stars. Of the eight stools at the counter, three were occupied by graying men drinking beer from cans, and a fourth by a route salesman in a cheap suit.

And here we have Nick, getting changed to go to head office rather than the sales office:

I finished shaving and undid my tie, switching from an Italian print to a wine and olive rep. I changed my side buckle shoes to a relatively more conservative pair of black oxfords that had thin steel plates wrapped around the outside of the toes. I put on a thrift shop Harris Tweed, secured the apartment, and drove to work.

Note the relatively spare, hardboiled, prose style there.

Generally, Pelecanos brings early 1990s D.C. to life, the drugs, the racial tensions. There is a palpable sense of place through the whole novel, and given that to me a sense of place is key to writing good crime fiction, it’s an important element of the novel’s success.

Not everything, however, is quite so successful. The characters are incredibly hard drinking, Nick clearly has an alcohol problem, not yet fully developed but plainly there, that’s fine but so does almost everyone else and it’s fair to say that almost every character of note in the novel spends their time drunk, stoned or both. That may be a fair reflection of early 1990s D.C., but I wasn’t wholly persuaded. Worse though is that’s a symptom of a problem with Nick as a character. Generally, he is convincing, he is part of a Greek community that feels real (as it should, given Stefanos himself comes from such), he feels as if he has a life beyond the book, but he is also portrayed as being a bit cool and for me that didn’t wholly work.

Nick has great taste in music (I actually dug out my old Elvis Costello discs on finishing the book, apparently a common reaction to it), he can hold his own in rough clubs aimed at men ten years his junior, he is popular with women, the two times he gets in fights knowing that’s what’s about to happen he basically kicks ass, he is a fine shot too. Basically, he’s a bit badass.

Now, in part that’s all good hardboiled stuff. Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op can all handle themselves in a fight, Spade and Marlowe are both handsome fellows and well dressed. Pelecanos is writing a hardboiled crime novel. It’s just that Spade, Marlowe and the Continental Op were professional PIs, Nick is an advertising director slightly past his glory days. He’s cool, but he’s cool in a slightly sad way for a character the wrong side of 30.

In fairness, that slightly pathetic quality is in part intentional. Nick’s ex-wife left him because he wasn’t accepting adult responsibilities, an element made interestingly ambiguous given that it’s clear she’s accepted them herself but that in doing so she’s lost along the way an essential part of her own character. Pelecanos gives the impression that much of Nick’s motivation in looking for the missing kid is seeking his own youth which is slipping away from him. The trouble is, those elements of ambiguity, of whether accepting adult responsibilities is simply a form of surrender, are slightly undercut by Nick later on taking down a bad guy in brutally effective fashion. It’s also undercut slightly by Nick’s success with women. Put another way, Nick’s traits that come from his status as hardboiled hero sit slightly oddly with Nick’s traits which come from him being an ageing scenester who’s sold out and isn’t sure he got anything worthwhile in return.

Still, those criticisms aside, it’s a well written and well paced crime novel. It’s not more than that, but that’s nothing to be sniffed at, it’s an enjoyable read and Nick is ultimately an interesting character to travel some of America’s backways with. As I said at the outset, I intend to read the sequel, and I look forward eventually to reading George Pelecanos’s more ambitious works, the ones he wrote when he finally felt free not to follow a hardboiled template that at times seems to work against what he’s trying here to achieve.

A Firing Offense


Filed under Crime, Hardboiled, Pelecanos, George

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

To be an animal that thinks persistently in terms way beyond its lifespan sets us a frightful problem.

And a problem for which He Died with his Eyes Open by Derek Raymond has no comforting answers.

He Died with His Eyes Open is a novel I read some months back, I’m covering it here as it is the first of a tetralogy collectively known as the Factory novels, and I plan to read the others in the sequence. The factory itself is a West London police station in which is found the Department of Unexplained Deaths, which seems to deal primarily on the strength of this novel with deaths which are unexplained because nobody cares enough to explain them.

This is the first Derek Raymond novel I have read, of which more later.

The protagonist, a policeman from the department, is unnamed and we know him chiefly through his responses to colleagues and to the victim whose death he chooses to investigate. In any event, he as a character is not particularly interesting, being a cynical loner who puts the truth ahead of his career, a set of traits not wholly unknown in crime fiction.

The character that is interesting is the murdered man, a middle-aged alcoholic found brutally beaten to death (reminiscent in this of The Papers of Tony Veitch by William Laidlaw, a novel this has much in common with) by the name of Staniland. Staniland is a failed writer, and one who left behind him a series of audio tapes on which he recorded various musings about his life. It is those tapes that are at the heart of the novel, this is far more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.

So, a cynical lone policeman, a brutally murdered alcoholic, in themselves these are not interesting elements. Why then do I consider this, as I do, an interesting novel?

Because it is not a novel about murder at all, rather it is a novel about the implications of our own deaths for meaning in our lives. Staniland is portrayed as an intelligent man, too much so for his own good, and far too sane to be able to live with any comfort. He sees without the benefit of any self-delusion that we are mortal, he has no belief in any afterlife or god. He recognises that our lives are finite and brief and that very shortly all that we are and do shall be lost. The novel is about how he lives, or as we know from the first chapter, fails to live with that knowledge. Staniland has realised that he is mortal, and once he has realised it that knowledge overwhelms him.

Noir fiction has been from its earliest days a vehicle for exploring the implications of existentialism. Indeed, I’ve seen it argued that L’Etranger by Camus is a noir novel (actually, I think it’s absurdist rather than existentialist, but others are better informed than I am on those precise distinctions). He Died with his Eyes Open is a noir novel in that vein, it is an exploration of existentialism and its implications. We inhabit a world without purpose, can we through our lives give purpose to it and to ourselves while we are here?

Staniland’s answer, though not perhaps Raymond’s, is that we cannot. That our lives are intrinsically meaningless, that we cannot give meaning to them and that even if we face up to their meaninglessness and live in the full honesty of that recognition that too is itself meaningless. As this is still a crime novel I don’t wish to get into plot here, but I will reveal that when the policeman finally understands why Staniland died he almost dies himself, falling into the same despair as did Staniland.

Staniland’s tapes cover his thoughts on mortality, his life shortly before his death, his obsession with a woman he loves but who does not care for him (this part is very strongly reminiscent of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, the relationship between the central character and the woman is almost identical) and also earlier periods in his life with the work he did and the family relationships he had.

So, here are our elements. Staniland’s thoughts on life itself, Staniland’s obsession with a woman named Barbara whom he knows mostly from pubs and who takes other men in part to mock him or so it seems to him, Staniland’s relationship with his daughter, with his step-son, the unnamed policeman’s reconstruction of Staniland’s life piece by piece until he understands what Staniland understood, until in a sense he starts himself to live Staniland’s life.

As a crime story the novel is a success, there are some excellent scenes in which the policeman slowly reconstructs Staniland’s life and how he came to his death. There are memorably unpleasant minor characters (in common with other noir fiction, there are no pleasant characters). One could read this purely as a crime novel and in my view it would still succeed on those terms. It is though as an examination of the implications of mortality that for me it really takes off. A quote helps here, from one of Staniland’s tapes:

“Most people live with their eyes shut, but I mean to die with mine open. We all instinctively try to make death less difficult for ourselves. Personally, I’ve got two ways. First, I drink. I drink for oblivion, and then a fall of some kind or a blow, once I’m beyond thinking or feeling. That’s how I’d die, with my eyes shut. My other way is to rationalise my experience. But, no matter how logically you think, you soon get in a muddle. Existence is blind – neither for you nor against you. This impartiality contradicts everything in human experience; there is neither love nor hatred, caresses or assault, in your dealing with the everyday. Existence is like a stock exchange – you can make as big a fool of yourself as you like, and go on until you’re hammered.”

As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Staniland may have brought on his own death, that he may have sought to die with his eyes open, that he despaired and that he had no belief that dying with his eyes open itself meant any more than anything else. That is where the fundamental sadness of this novel comes from, and it is a sad novel, it is a communication of despair from a dead man to a living, and a communication which persuades the living man of its truth.

The irony, and why I think it is open to question if Raymond means us to agree with Staniland, is that the tapes also reveal that Staniland at times had more in his life. In particular, a daughter he loved. Staniland’s tragedy is not the inevitability of death, but that he cannot ignore the fact of death and so live in the meantime. His knowledge of death seeps into his life, until there is little else left to him. Staniland’s life is meaningless and that cannot be changed, but as depicted it need not have been tragic, or at least no more tragic than any other life.

There are other aspects to the novel, Barbara (Staniland’s occasional lover and fellow drunk) is a form of concentrated human evil, her own response to the irrelevance of being. Staniland says of her “Barbara was hatched in fury like a wasp, and she’ll die in fury. Her promiscuity is aggression; she uses sex to obliterate a man – this is her revenge on existence.” Barbara too is responding to pointlessness, in acts of equally pointless cruelty and revenge. The policeman remembers an unfashionable sculptor who sought to capture the moments between life and death, but whose work was never acclaimed and was inevitably going to be destroyed by the council upon his death. The sculptor describes his work as follows “I try to reconstruct in stone the tragedy of a free man passing from life to death, from will to nothingness: I try to capture the second in which he disintegrates. It’s an objective that won’t let me go” “And I don’t want it to”.

Everywhere there is meaninglessness, but responses differ. Barbara responds in cruelty, Staniland in despair, the policeman by seeking to impose order onto the reality of chaos, the sculptor in art even though there is nobody who cares to view it and it will not outlive him. Since all responses are equally irrelevant, all are in a sense equally valid.

The works I would most contrast this with are those by William McIlvanney (predominantly a writer of literary fiction), who wrote a trilogy featuring a detective named Laidlaw. Of that trilogy, I have so far only read the first two, Laidlaw and The Papers of Tony Veitch. In McIlvanney’s world we are again faced with the implications of mortality, with the question of how we give meaning to our lives when our lives are ultimately meaningless. But McIlvanney reaches very different conclusions, his works are born of a clear Glaswegian socialist tradition and when in The Papers of Tony Veitch the policeman Laidlaw investigates the brutal death of a middle-aged alcoholic (I said there were similarities) he does so because the fact of our mortality to him carries with it a moral imperative. We must all matter, or none of us do. If this is all we have, then this matters, and the death of anyone – even a vagrant whose life was one of abject misery – is a crime against each of us as we are all we have. In Raymond’s work our mortality is a source of despair, for McIlvanney it is a call to action.

Raymond’s work is also more atomistic than McIlvanney’s. To McIlvanney we are products of the society we form part of, in the first of his sequence (Laidlaw) we are invited to sympathise more with a rapist and murderer than we are with the victim’s parents, because the murderer is himself a product of our society and so himself a victim too. With Raymond, we are each on our own. We owe no great responsibility to each other, nor do we draw meaning from each other. Both start from the same point, we are mortal and our lives have no intrinsic meaning to them, but from those points they go to very different places.

As I said above, this is the first of Raymond’s novels I have read. His most famous is I was Dora Suarez, a novel which reputedly caused his publisher to vomit across his desk when he first read it (much, apparently, to Raymond’s glee). I was looking at that the other day and noticed that the murdered Dora has left a diary, which the protagonist reads from to understand her, a worryingly close device to Staniland’s tapes and one that I hope will not recur too much in all his novels.

Raymond himself (a pseudonym by the way, his real name was Robin Cook but he needed to avoid confusion with the writer of medical thrillers) lived a life very much like that of Staniland, even down to the jobs each of them held such as vineyard labourer and minicab driver. I generally dislike trying to read an author’s life into his work, and I don’t plan to here, but I mention it as it is entirely possible that Raymond meant us to do precisely that and that in some senses this novel is an externalisation of an investigation into Raymond’s own life and philosophy. Ultimately, however, I tend personally to prefer to treat the work as a thing in itself, so though I mention this to draw attention to it it’s not a theme I intend to explore here further.

Overall then, this is a noir novel which seeks as the best noir fiction does to explore the implications of existentialism and mortality. It portrays a world without much by way of hope, a world in which we are animals and not particularly pleasant animals at that. We are animals with the misfortune to think beyond our lives and to understand the fact of our own deaths, and we are animals capable of cruelty to each other beyond that of most species. Like David Peace in Nineteen Seventy Four, Raymond does not portray us as a species of great value, and if there is a message it appears to be that we can expect no better from each other than we would from any other animal.



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


Originally posted 11 July 2008.

Since I’m still only part way through my current read, At Lady Molly’s (which is volume 4 of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time) I thought I’d post some thoughts on a novel I read a little while back now. The reason is that it is the first of a quartet (known as the Red Riding Hood quartet), and I intend to read the others, thus this is to provide a little context for those later works. I shall be posting some other retrospective comments, generally where the book in question is part of a series and I intend to write about later books in that series (this usually arises in respect of crime novels, but not exclusively so).

The book in question is Nineteen Seventy Four, David Peace’s first novel published in 1999 by the excellent publishing house Serpent’s Tail, who can generally be trusted to showcase the cutting edge of British crime fiction. Interestingly, Serpent’s Tail chose to compare the book on the back cover with Derek Raymond’s He Died with his Eyes Open, which I also intend to comment on at a later date, but beyond the fact both are British and published by Serpent’s Tail the two books have little in common.

David Peace is often considered a British James Ellroy, and certainly he seems very influenced by Ellroy. Sentences are staccato. Often a handful of words. Abrupt. To the point. There is an absence of heroes, and an interest in the underbelly of society and how that connects to public institutions such as politics and the police. That said, although the comparison is somewhat inevitable it can be overstretched and while fans of Ellroy are likely to enjoy Peace’s work ultimately it is best approached on its own terms. All novels build on work that has come before, Peace is no exception to this, but his work does bear consideration on its own merits and if he were no more than a British Ellroy then personally I would simply read the original and would not be proposing to read the remainder of the quartet.

The novel is set in Yorkshire in 1974, and follows a crime journalist (Ed Dunford) on a local Yorkshire paper. Dunford investigates a case involving a missing child, which in turn leads him into a broader investigation of a series of horrific child murders and increasingly of local corruption among the police and local politicians and businessmen.

The novel is quintessential noir, nobody is likeable, nobody is clean, nobody is even particularly honest. The characters are drunks, bigots, violent and corrupt. The protagonist spends much of the novel as concerned with office politics within his paper as he is with the murdered children (certainly the story he pursues is in part a means to his own advancement). He enters into a relationship with a profoundly damaged woman, mother of one of the victims, and shows himself in that to be as twisted and violent as those he opposes. There is nothing here of the hardboiled hero who roots out vice driven by his own code. Ed Dunford is driven, in large part by disgust, but if he has a code or moral centre himself it is far from obvious.

The plot is in many ways straightforward, girls are being killed, the crime is being covered up, those covering it up are doing so for commercial and political motives. Despite this the plot can be hard to follow, so many characters are venal, so many have no interest in any truth coming to light, that it can be hard to keep track. Similarly, the novel is hard to follow at times because of the sheer brutality of the world depicted, in which the police carry out vicious attacks on unwanted gypsy caravans and in which prisoners are routinely and horrifically tortured until they confess.

Characters are credibly drawn, Ed Dunford is believable as are those he encounters, indeed Peace has a knack for quickly sketching a character or for capturing their essence in a line or two of dialogue or described action. Peace is also good at charting Dunford’s emotional relationships, his failing relationship with his girlfriend, his twisted one with his lover, his very different relationship with his mother and even his relationship with his recently dead father. Part of the horror of the novel comes from its credibility, from the fact we can believe in the characters, in their lives and in their pettiness, rivalries and occasional acts of small kindness.

This is a relentlessly pessimistic novel, the depiction of 1970s Yorkshire is of a place in which the self interest of the moneyed and political classes overrides all else, even the lives of children. The language used throughout the novel, by nearly every character, is obscene and this is matched with explicitly detailed episodes of appalling violence and (less frequently) sex. In Peace’s world we are animals, we eat, we shit, we fuck and we die. Being British animals, we also drink quite a lot of tea. Nothing has any deeper meaning, things happen and people do terrible things and crimes carry with them no guarantee of punishment.

Interestingly, Peace is a writer now increasingly shelved in the general fiction section of bookshops rather than crime, and he has occasionally been tipped as a potential future Booker nominee. One of the oddities of noir fiction is that it is often treated as literary fiction, possibly as commentary on the nature of existence and what it is to be human is integral to the genre. Peace here speaks to what it means to be human, his answer however is that it may not mean very much at all. We are animals, though our ability to reason allows us to reach levels of savagery and of self-destruction that other animals thankfully escape.

Would I recommend the novel? I plan to read the rest of the quartet, of which apparently this is the lightest and least bleak, hard as that is for me to believe having read it. It is a powerful work, frequently shocking, it has scenes of immense power (such as the scene the title of this blog entry comes from, which is uttered by a policeman). It is worth reading, I would not quite go so far as to call it an enjoyable read, but as a piece of powerful contemporary British noir it has much to recommend it and I do look forward to seeing where he goes next and to investigating his later works.



Filed under British crime fiction, Crime, Noir, Peace, David