Monday, February 29, 2016
The Kind of Face You Shoot: The Murdering Fool
I'm not sure when or from what source I first heard about Derek Raymond, but I'm positive that the reason I became aware of him at all is I Was Dora Suarez. It's possible that the connection being made in whatever it was I was reading, was between I Was Dora Suarez and horror fiction, this being interesting because Raymond's novel is a work of crime fiction, not horror. For some reason, linking those two genres together is something that's only done sporadically, most often when there's a blatant crossover, as in, say, Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, which weld the crime procedural with almost Gothic villainy (the argument could be made, and made easily, that Harris's follow-up, Hannibal, pretty much leaves crime behind altogether, and is a full-on horror novel; that it's garbage is immaterial). Otherwise, unless a horror writer is intentionally bringing noir tropes into his or her horror story, the fact that both genres traditionally traffic in violent death and dark psychologies and evil intentions doesn't seem to most people to be particularly worth noting. Hence why what I learned about I Was Dora Suarez, and it's very particular reputation, made such an impact on me that day, whenever it was, because the novel is considered one of the most violently transgressive, shocking, and horrific crime novels ever written. It's a novel that was thought to be so vile (in its content, not its morality, though there must be some folks who consider it morally repugnant, too) by Raymond's publishers at the time that they refused to take it, and he had to shop it elsewhere. The oft-quoted passage from Marilyn Stasio's review of it in The New York Times Book Review, when the novel was originally published in 1990, goes like this:
If you think of the act of writing as a game of chicken between the author and his talent, then Derek Raymond is one author who achieves his ecstasy by sailing off cliffs. Everything about I Was Dora Suarez shrieks of the joy and pain of going too far.
I Was Dora Suarez is an Infamous Cult Novel, and who doesn't want to read those?
What I eventually learned was that I Was Dora Suarez is the fourth in a Raymond's series of novels -- referred to alternately as "The Factory Novels" and "The Black Novels," in the first case because the building that houses the police division Unexplained Deaths (or A14) is known as The Factory, and in the latter case because in mood, tone, and content, the novels are very black indeed -- about an unnamed London police detective, our narrator, with an appalling tragedy in his past and an overwhelmingly intense empathy for murder victims that only just exceeds his loathing for anybody who isn't exactly like him (more about that in a little bit). And even though I wanted to read I Was Dora Suarez more than just about anything, I decided to -- and please try not to admire me too much for this -- read the three preceding Factory novels first. So over the years I plowed through He Died With His Eyes Open (filmed twice by the French, and once considered for a third Gallic adaptation by Claude Chabrol), The Devil's Home on Leave, and How the Dead Live (there's a fifth, which I haven't read, called Dead Man Upright, published in 1993, not long before Raymond's death in 1994). Perhaps you'll notice a theme among those titles, as "black" was the theme of Cornell Woolrich's own, original series of "black" novels (The Bride Wore Black, Black Alibi, The Black Angel, etc.) which he, Woolrich, never broke from, yet here we have I Was Dora Suarez, an outlier. Anyhow, what I learned from those books was that Raymond (whose real name was Robin Cook) was an evidently very sincere writer with a very despairing imagination, and a weird devotion to certain detective fiction tropes which he'd have been better off tossing aside since, for one thing, just because everyone claims genre fiction is formulaic doesn't make it so, and also, he wasn't very good at writing them. Which is perhaps more to the point. I'm not talking about the crime investigation structure of the detective story, and I'll grant you that part of the formula is pretty much unavoidable when writing about a criminal investigation. No, I'm talking about things like hardboiled dialogue, for which, right from the start, it's clear to me Raymond had no gift. Enough years have passed since I read those first three novels that it would be very difficult for me to go into particulars, but I remember that Our Narrator clashes over and over again with Bowman, an inspector on the police force he despises, that, essentially run like this:
"You're just a fool, Bowman. Someone should help you find your brain."
"You can't talk to me like that!" Bowman screamed.
Paraphrased, etc. In addition, the stories Raymond concocted, while manufactured to fit his handful of themes, were wild enough to strain credulity, which is not unusual in crime fiction by any means, but this sort of plotting requires a deft touch if the philosophical thrust -- and if there's one thing Raymond is after, it's to turn the crime novel into philosophy -- of the novel is something like "This is the modern psychological landscape."
I didn't think any of these novels weas terrible, though, and in fact I thought each one was at least a slight improvement on the one before: Raymond's emotional commitment strengthened as his writing became less erratic. I remember thinking that How the Dead Live as a whole represented the most obvious jump in quality on several grounds, not least the surer hand exhibited in handling another wild plot, and making it work more directly towards the goal he'd always been aiming for. This gave me reason to be optimistic, since my disappointment in his writing never altered my plan to get around to I Was Dora Suarez "one of these days." Its infamy simply cast too immense a shadow over the last twenty years of crime fiction.
When Melville House reprinted the first four books in the Factory series, Joyce Carol Oates (Oh God, not her again! I'm afraid so) reviewed He Died With His Eyes Open and I Was Dora Suarez for The New York Review of Books. Finding herself quite enamored, she wrote:
Few detectives go so far as Raymond's Detective Sergeant, who falls in love with murder victims because they have been wrongfully killed, and there is no one but the Detective Sergeant to avenge them. Edmund Wilson could not have dismissed Derek Raymond's Factory novels as below the radar of serious literary consideration, and Auden would surely have been impressed with their stark originality, though Raymond's vision is wholly secular and fatalist and there is little sense of redemption in these blood-drenched pages...
Which is certainly in line with just about every opinion of Raymond and this series I've ever come across. Though regarded from a distance this must seem like a strange hope, nevertheless what Oates claims these books are, and what she claims they succeed in accomplishing, is what I still hoped I Was Dora Suarez would deliver. When all is said and done, though, dragging Wilson and Auden into the fray seems defensive at best. In any case, I've now read I Was Dora Suarez, and the first thirty pages or so did two things for me: it convinced me that the novel's reputation for being shocking was reasonably well-earned, and made me wonder if perhaps this novel really was a masterpiece.
Those pages describe a pair of murders (well, three, but let's stick with the main two for now), of an old woman named Betty Carstairs, hurled head-first through her own grandfather clock, about whom Raymond writes:
...Betty Carstairs was eighty-six, and that was how she died that night. She had never truly asked herself if the long and arduous history of her life had been worthwhile, or whether indeed it had had any meaning at all; but she had at least supposed that she owned some right to her own body, to give or withhold it while it was still worth looking at, and to continue to live on in it even after it was not. She had endured two wars, accepting in both the losses of people close to her that wars entail; she had been less afraid of the bombing than of considering why it was that so many of those who made up her personal world should perish in an apparently random way, and why it was that she should have expected patience from herself and found it, each time her husband, long dead now, had invaded her physically -- for she was Scottish, and had never been an awakened person: all she had ever really enjoyed doing was walking. And then, lately, when she had fallen seriously ill with her heart and knew that she was spent, she marvelled and wondered, when she was not in pain, why she need feel so afraid and alone.
Well, now she had been killed in her own clock, so that was that, and that was the squalid and miserable end of Betty Carstairs.
Note that Betty was the second victim that night. The first had been a pretty young woman, Betty's lodger and friend, Dora Suarez, daughter of a Spanish father and Jewish mother. About her death, Raymond writes:
Silly little bat, she kept trying to get away from him long after there was nowhere for her to go, telling him over and over that she had made her peace with the world, which infuriated him in a delicious way -- and yet all he achieved by the panic he had caused in her was make her trip over one of the trailing sheets between the two beds, which created a prize cock-up, becuse all she did then was fall with a thud on the floor and a bit later, even when she did finally manage to get up again, she had by then got her stupid little head in totally the wrong position for him, so that instead of his being able to take her head clean off, bag up and leave, he somehow got in a fluster. And now look at the fucking place, a shambles, shit order! It wasn't a question of the blood everywhere or the smell of her entrails in the frozen room that upset him so much as the mess he had made of her. She was sad to look down at, like a fuck that hadn't come off; the assorted bits of her lying all over the toffee shop left him with an emptiness, they left him wanting to take the whole scene back and play it again.
He'd be punishing himself for this, of course -- still, in the meantime, whew!
He got jerked off over her all right in the end, though, just the same, even though he nearly bit his bottom lip off doing it.
Notice that here, unlike in the passage about Betty Carstairs, the information is more about the killer than it is Dora Suarez. There's a reason for that, or many, one of which being that I Was Dora Suarez is a first-person novel, told from the point of view of Raymond's nameless detective. Which means he's telling us all these seemingly third person things (though there's a telling use of "we" in this section that clues the reader into the fact that something's up) and it's hard not to wonder how he knows, for example, that Betty Carstairs only enjoyed walking, and nothing else in life. Then again, and this is an odd choice on Raymond's part, we eventually learn, through Dora Suarez's diary which the detective finds in her room, that Betty Carstairs wasn't as miserable in her marriage as that "invaded her physically" bit would suggest.
The power of this, especially if you've read enough fiction about serial killers, is that Raymond seems to be describing, to the degree that it is within any sane person's ability to do so, actual serial murder. The killer (and he will be named eventually in the course of the novel) does not choose his victims based on some contrived nonsense equation ("His dad's car was a Ford so he murders only people named Ford") but instead he's driven, apparently, by genuine violent, psychopathic desires. And what he does to Suarez -- I quoted some of it, but by no means all -- exactly corresponds to the kind of horrific, sewer-like defiling of their victims engaged in by real serial killers. In other words, this isn't a "thriller." In these pages, Raymond is returning murder to its rightful realm of terror, disgust, torture, and madness, without trying to place it within some kind of structure.
When the killer leaves that crime scene, he drives to the house of a man named Roatta, a corrupt fellow we learn next to nothing about, other than that there is some criminal/professional situation at play here. All that matters is that the killer kills him. He shoots him in the head:
The upper part of Roatta's head entirely disappeared; it vanished in a red screen of exploding blood and bone, and when that cleared away, there was nothing left of his head at all except his lower jaw, from which a sly tongue with things running off it dropped...
Etc. There's no need to keep typing. We're clearly now in the land of Cartoon Violence. This is jarring, coming so soon after the naturalistic repugnance of the Carstairs/Suarez murders. Worse yet, though it might not seem to be a problem at first, is the implication that the Roatta murder is not a serial killing, but rather a professional, hired murder. So that this serial killer is also a hitman, which means, for the reader of crime fiction, or for anybody, I should think, a host of things, such as: this is not a serial killer as they exist in the real world, regardless of what those powerful first 25 pages might have indicated. Which means, further, that the dreaded shadow of "plot" has now been cast over I Was Dora Suarez. Plot, by the way, is fine. Even great, if you're good at it. But when you can't, or don't care to, work the mechanics of plot in your favor, so that in your novel, as here, the plot is nothing more that a series of exposed gears creaking with rust, the sincerity of the writer's philosophy begins to pale next to the disingenuousness of the storyteller.
There's no need to focus on that bit especially, though, because everything I've just quoted and talked about can be found in I Was Dora Suarez's first chapter. In chapter two, the thing drops off the fucking cliff. I do believe that I've already strongly implied that this all goes tits up after a while, and the fact that it starts out so much better than the previous Factory novels somehow does not improve the overall experience. And my bewilderment in the face of I Was Dora Suarez has somewhat less to do with the novel itself than it does with the critical refusal to acknowledge the unignorable garbage that makes up the vast majority of pages 25 through 190 (give or take) of this 202-page novel. All of which sounds harsh, but please know, my reasons are sound.
The problem with writing about where I Was Dora Suarez goes wrong is that none of the problems -- and they're all, save those of plot and so forth, of pretty much the same type -- aren't all that interesting. What's uncomfortably fascinating is how long they last. After that first chapter, the story progresses along roughly these lines: because the three murders described in the opening chapter occurred so close together, both geographically and temporally, the Detective Sergeant (for the sake of simplicity I'll go with Oates on this one) believes they're connected (a bit of a leap when you consider that Suarez was killed with an axe, Carstairs with brute force, and Roatta with a handgun). The inspector assigned to the Roatta murder, a man named Stevenson, agrees, so the two of them team up. A diary that Suarez kept (and in which she strongly implies that she was suffering from a terminal illness, and, furthermore, had intended to commit suicide on the very night she was murdered) leads them to a mob-run club where Suarez, who was a prostitute, sometimes met clients. There's also a photograph of Suarez singing at a mobster's birthday party, and in the background of that picture is the blurry form of a man heading for the exit. The Detective Sergeant almost immediately decides that guy's the killer, which turns out to be correct, as it happens.
Admirers of the Factory series like to talk about "the shadow of Thatcher" and things such as this when discussing the novels. There's no question in my mind that Raymond wrote these books with that sort of sociopolitical agenda in the back of his mind, but it's beyond me, personal politics aside, why that should factor into a consideration of their quality. Political affiliation paired with the very act of writing genre fiction seems to make folks swoon, but neither thing excuses you from being bad, and much of I Was Dora Suarez is quite bad.
The problem begins with the Detective Sergeant, who is an asshole -- this would be fine if I didn't get the sense that Raymond believes him to be an honorable and admirable man in every respect. He's admirable because he is working and struggling and suffering on the behalf of murder victims, which is fair enough, but he absolutely stomps all over everybody who isn't exactly like him. Or maybe they are, but he doesn't even give them a chance to show what they think. In this passage, the Detective Sergeant (who's been brought back to the force specifically to work the Dora Suarez case, after a suspension stemming from events described in How the Dead Live) is trying to settle -- bitterly, it must be said -- into his office, while feeling like the resented outsider. Raymond writes:
The top left-hand drawer of my desk had been turned into a kind of death row by seven of last year's flies; but except for them that piece of furniture was empty, so I decided to prove to everyone in the place, including myself, that I existed by picking up the phone. The phone sounded dead for quite a while, but after I had dialled zero nine and rapped its grey plastic head very hard on the woodwork several times I finally got a WPC with a bright little voice which said: 'Who is this, please?'
'I'll come down and introduce myself if you don't look out,' I said.
'Line 205 is not in use,' she said.
'Well that must explain why we're both a couple of cunts talking down it then, mustn't it?' I said. 'Now pull your finger out with a loud pop, missis, get it functioning like five minutes ago was a hundred years too late and then I will give you permission to go even further and go totally and utterly mad by stopping all incoming calls while I read up on two murders, which, though you mightn't believe it, is the bizarre, rather sordid kind of work that goes on in this part of the building.' I added: 'And try not to wast my time, because with the current crime rate we never have any.'
'I was just doing my job.'
'I know,' I said, 'and that's what I'm complaining about.'
I think we can all agree that the proper response from the woman unfortunate enough to be in the position to answer that phone, after all that from the Detective Sergeant, would be "What the fuck??" And his tirade, which is based on nothing, actually goes on from there. The only thing I can figure is that Raymond loathed bureaucracy (but don't we all?) and took it as a given that by showing that in order to get your phone set up, or to talk to a person about something important, that falling into a hopeless bureaucratic labyrinth was now your fate unless you, like the Detective Sergeant, were willing to chew his way through to the center like acid. But in order to get that across, mustn't you first describe the bureaucracy? Instead of that, Raymond has his hero piss in the face of a woman who just answered the damn phone, and we're meant to react with a somber fist-pump: it's hopeless, but at least one man is trying.
It's when the Detective Sergeant and Stevenson get to the mob-run club, which is called the Parallel Club, that I Was Dora Suarez really begins to collapse. The Sergeant and Stevenson interrogate a variety of people associated with the club. The Sergeant and Stevenson both have the same approach to their questions (or "questions") and both men sound exactly alike -- the men being questioned all sound exactly like each other, so I guess that's fair enough. But anyway, this is the key, and bear with me, please. On pages 101 to 102 of my Melville International Crime edition:
Another well-stuff fun seeker who looked as if he were quick on his feet if he had to be came over to us and said: 'Who was it you said you were again?'
'Correct the tone, son,' said Stevenson. 'You can see we're police officers, so fuck off and wheel some brains on or I'll have your on a one-way single.' A passing punter who looked as if he had caught socialism in the bar and then brought it up in the scented jacks wavered past us on his way over to an Indian girl naked except for gold slippers and a fur coat, who obviously, from her choked expression, looked as if she felt she could have scored higher. The punter, who was young, with a very high-fairy-tale bald head, said to Stevenson: 'Manners!'
Stevenson said: 'I'm on my manor, it's called the Factory. Are you on yours?'
'My father owns half this street!'
'Don't bet on it,' Stevenson said.
On page 108:
Stevenson showed Robacci the picture and said: 'OK, now. Now we're here in the Parallel with this photo, aren't we? What night was that, then?
'No need to stammer over it, Robacci,' I said. 'We're in the middle of Roatta's last birthday party here, aren't we?'
He had to say yes.
'The girl singing,' I said. 'The dark girl with the mike there.'
'Don't know here.'
I said: 'Repeat that, but take all your time, because your answer could effect your long-term future.'
'I might have seen her.'
'Don't tell me people sinc in your club in front of your customers without your knowing who the fucking hell they are,' I said.
'They came and went,' Robacci said, 'you know. Felix looked after that end.'
'This is the face of one that went,' I said, 'and the payment for that is going to be weighty.' I said: 'So wring your brains out and put a name to her before you lose your own -- because I'll bury you in the British prison system till the end of time if you don't; the Factory always finds a way.'
'Stevenson said: 'What goes on upstairs here?'
'Upstairs?' said the doorman? 'What upstairs?'
'Your realise we've got a W to take these whole premises apart,' said Stevenson. 'Now, the bother you're already in, you perjure yourself in front of two police officers and you'd best make your will, I'm telling you flat, Johnny.'
'Now let's play it again,' I said. 'The upstairs.'
Stevenson said to Scalo: 'It's your unlucky night.'
Scalo said: 'I don't know what you expect to find here.'
Stevenson said: 'Not you, anyway.' He went over to the phone and dialled up the Factory. He said: 'Bring up a car, yes, it's to the Parallel again, regular minicab service, isn't it? You've one with a wind down for St Stephen's, the other wherever you've a spare cell in the building. Its name's Scalo. Ice it, we've a search on, then we'll be over with a few questions -- yes, straightaway, nice one, bye.'
Scalo said: 'You're never going to nick me.'
Stevenson said: 'What do you mean? That was it, they're on their way, hot-throb.'
And so on. There's one big revelation in this stretch, one which amps up while at the same time undercutting the "shocking" element of the book, because it's so absurd -- it has to do with what at first are called gerbils, until Raymond seems to have forgotten that and starts calling them rats, and a certain depraved use of such animals you've probably heard of. I'm not going to get into it. But otherwise, over the course of at least forty pages straight (which is not to say forty pages only) what you're reading is what I've just quoted extensively above. And I could have kept going. And going and going and going, but you'd have stopped reading and reported my blog. The other thing you should keep in mind is that this is forty pages out of the novel's full two hundred. That's one-fifth of I Was Dora Suarez given over to the Detective Sergeant or Stevenson saying to somebody "Listen sweetheart we will throw you into a prison jail" and the guy saying "Wait you can't do that" and then they say "Oh don't think that twice, glory-bird" or whatever. It's endless, and thunderously dull.
And none of this even reveals anything that leads them to the killer. They find the guy because the Detective Sergeant is convinced that this blurry faceless figure in the photograph must be the guy, and then he goes to a high-level mob guy with whom he's conveniently formed a bond somewhere along the way, and asks the mob boss "Do you know any serial killers? Tell me straight, sunny man," and the guy does know a serial killer and guess what, it's the same serial killer we've been looking for this whole time.
All the while, we're meant to just bask, or wallow, in the existential, this-modern-world terror that the Detective Sergeant (and Raymond) seems to believe it's heroic to suffer through. The Detective Sergeant is basically Jesus: he suffers for us. Although unlike Jesus, he hates us all. Well, not all of us. Once or twice in I Was Dora Suarez we run across a character who meets with the Detective Sergeant's approval. There are at least two at the morgue, where he learns the extent of Dora Suarez's tragedy (her terminal illness was AIDS, and she had very little time left). After going over the terribleness of her murder and her illness, one of the good men wheels the body away:
Wiecienski said: 'I'll take care of her,' and he drew the towel over her.
Time put a dead little question into a silence that fell as he did so, marred only by the squeak of the rubber wheels; and then the full horror of Suarez's death must have struck all of us in that high room smoking with ice simultaneously, because we all turned and looked at each other, speechless, and Wiecienski looked back at us over his shoulder once with red eyes as he took her back.
Why does Wiecienski look back? "Look at me guys, I'm crying!" My guess is Raymond wanted us to know that the character started to break down once the professional interaction was over, but the only way he could find to tell the reader, in a first-person narrative, was to have him behave in a completely unnatural way.
But frankly, Raymond seemed to have a tough time keeping things straight -- either that, or he didn't care. Whatever tedious, thudding blurt of sentimental despair pops into his head will end up on the page. On page 164, at the very end of chapter eight, the Detective Sergeant says:
Do you know I cry in my sleep? Do you think a man can't cry in his sleep?
Then on page 202, the very last line of the novel:
I had tears in my eyes for the first time since I had broken my arm at sixteen playing football, but my tears were not for me -- they were for the rightful fury of the people.
Motherfucker, you just said...