BBC Radio 4 are currently serialising the first book in Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ series, He Died with His Eyes Open. Do catch it, if you get the chance; as well as a gripping story, the sound design is terrific, and a benchmark for just how powerful radio can be. Drawing on the book’s 80s setting, the last episode had the hairs going up on the back of my neck with its unsettling use of the Culture Club song ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?’
The ‘Factory’ is Soho’s Poland Street police station; the books follow the work of a Detective Sergeant employed by A14, the Department of Unexplained Deaths. ‘We work only on cases where the victims have been written off upstairs as unimportant, not pressworthy, not well connected and not big crime.’ Whilst a thankless task, this is not without its compensations: ‘what I like best about my work is that I can get on with it, as a rule, almost entirely on my own, without a load of keen idiots tripping all over my feet.’
The novels are extraordinary pieces of work, and required reading for anyone interested in the development of British crime fiction in the 1980s. They paint a dark picture of the country, underlaid with a powerful critique of the Thatcher government. Raymond explores some very uncomfortable territory, and whilst the books are by no means easy to read, they are nevertheless compelling.
One of the series’ most striking features (apart from the titles, which include such gems as The Devil’s Home on Leave and How the Dead Live, the latter striking enough for Will Self to appropriate it for one of his own novels) is their portrayal of the central character. Simultaneously brutal and compassionate, the Detective Sergeant has very little respect for his superior officers. On the surface, he is every inch the clichéd, maverick detective; and yet he has more depth than many other examples of the genre, and a boundless compassion for the victims whose deaths he investigates. It is this unwillingness to let go that puts him in danger in He Died With His Eyes Open; and in the other novels it leads him into some very dark places.
And yet, despite being so well drawn, one thing is forever missing: his name. We never learn what the Detective Sergeant is called, and I’ve long been intrigued by Raymond’s reasons for keeping him anonymous. Raymond knew a thing or two about pseudonyms himself – his real name was Robin Cook, under which his early novels were published. He adopted the Raymond monicker in the 1980s to avoid confusion with the medical thriller writer, saying later that he was the only man to willingly take on the name ‘Derek’.
One reason for his anonymity is the Detective Sergeant’s complete lack of ambition or need for personal advancement – his missing name a very real manifestation of his own selflessness. He clearly has the ability to transfer to a higher profile department in the Met, or take a promotion within A14, but resists all persuasion – as this exchange with a superior officer in The Devil’s Home on Leave demonstrates:
‘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 truth matters more to the DS than any financial or institutional reward. In remaining anonymous, the Detective Sergeant moves into the background, becoming an instrument of justice as faceless as the law itself. This has the effect of turning our attention more fully on the names of the victims, with whom our empathy – like that of the Detective Sergeant – should more correctly sit. This is made explicit with the title of the fourth book in the series, I Was Dora Suarez, named after the young woman murdered at the beginning of the book.
One fantasy that sends me off to sleep occasionally is the idea of trying to find out the Detective Sergeant’s name. There’s enough detail in the books to enable you to do it. He’s over 40 years old at the beginning of the series. Previously married, he refers to a daughter named Dahlia; and there can’t have been many of those registered in London in the early 1970s. It would take some time checking the General Registry Office indexes of birth certificates, but it could be done.
And yet, as intoxicating as such a quest might be, it misses the point somewhat. Whatever his name turned out to be, it would always be a disappointment. Better instead to let it remain a mystery, and concentrate instead on the stories the Detective Sergeant wants us to hear – those of lives brought to an abrupt end, and destined to be avenged only by the underfunded, unrecognised Department of Unexplained Deaths.
If you do listen to He Died With His Eyes Open and enjoy it, follow this up by reading the book. Raymond’s novels are truly unique, and linger long in the mind. They are unlike anything else in the crime genre, and entirely unlike the anonymity that the Detective Sergeant chooses to invest upon himself.