Derek Raymond was the pen name for a brilliant author named Robert William Arthur Cook, who did not want to be confused with Robin Cook of COMA fame. Raymond, whose career was cut short by his death in 1994, is regarded as the father of English noir. A great deal of the reason for Raymond’s being acknowledged as such is found in the five volumes of the Factory series, the first four volumes of which have been newly printed by Melville House (the fifth will see publication in early 2012). HE DIED WITH HIS EYES OPEN is the first installment in the series and is one of those nightmarish works that becomes unforgettable within the space of its first few pages, due in equal parts to its often shocking subject matter and the superlative quality of the author’s literary style.
"HE DIED WITH HIS EYES OPEN...becomes unforgettable within the space of its first few pages, due in equal parts to its often shocking subject matter and the superlative quality of the author’s literary style."
The “Factory” from which the series acquires its name is the headquarters of the London police A14, or Department of Unexplained Deaths. It is this unit of driven and dedicated detectives that is tasked with the investigation of the murders of the city’s downtrodden, those lost to the shadows and worse. It is a dead-end division --- one rarely if ever rises above the rank of sergeant there --- and is considered to be a way station for the more ambitious investigators, a stepping stone on their way elsewhere.
The unnamed investigator who narrates the book is assigned to investigate the brutal murder of Charles Locksley Alwin Staniland, who is found on the side of a street in a downtrodden end of the city. The violence visited upon Staniland is seen as an indication of a fierce anger and hatred felt by the perpetrator for the victim. The detective is left with very little to work with, other than a hodgepodge of papers and a number of cassette tapes that constitute Staniland’s personal effects.
The tapes are where the investigations begin; they contain a series of monologues --- some informative, some rambling, some almost feverish --- and, in a couple of cases, conversations with a woman named Barbara, with whom Staniland was involved in a destructive relationship. Staniland was an alcoholic who drowned his talents as a writer in spirits and whose impetuous actions resulted in the end of his marriage and the loss of his share of a family fortune, so that at the time of his death, he was only a step or so above squatting. It is only the unnamed detective who will speak for him in the end.
The investigation takes the detective, and the reader, to the rough edges of London and the even rougher individuals who populate it. His method of investigation is equal bits tough and (relatively) tender, relying on street smarts, intimidation and charm to open doors (among other things) and cajole information. His relationship with fellow law enforcement officers is interesting, to say the least, and occasionally the detective walks so close to the line between law enforcement and criminal that he appears almost ready to cross it. He doesn’t, but his cuffs get soiled at times.
Raymond’s prose hews an additional niche into the definition of “gritty,” one that is dark and deep indeed. Aficionados of noir detective fiction who are thoroughly familiar with contemporary practitioners at the expense of knowledge of the last generation could do far worse than to start with Raymond and, more specifically, with HE DIED WITH HIS EYES OPEN, a book that is exciting and fresh some 30 years down the road.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 1, 2011