These are the opening lines of He Died With His Eyes Open, the first in Derek Raymond’s celebrated, five-book ‘Factory’ series. As so often in the crime genre the book begins with a corpse; but there is much more here to savour. Raymond is precise in putting his body into context, and in describing a London teetering on the edge of a dark oblivion.
I say ‘a’ London, because one of the intriguing aspects of the Factory series is the way in which the real world and the fictional (and fantastical) sit alongside one another. The conversation and slang Raymond uses hark back to the 1960s, when the author himself was involved in a variety of criminal enterprises; whilst the places featured in He Died have a nightmarish, dream-like quality. There is no Albatross Road – at least not any more, nor in my mid-1990s A-Z. This contrasts with the ‘Factory’ itself, the non-existent police station sited on the very real Poland Street in the heart of Soho, and ‘bang opposite Marks & Sparks’, which also used to exist.
Why Albatross Road, and why make it up? The albatross has long been regarded as a bird of omen, both good and ill, perhaps most famously in Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Mariner’s killing of an albatross brings a terrible fate to his ship and fellow crew members, who are destined to remain stuck at sea with their supplies steadily dwindling – ‘as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.’ Coleridge’s poem also gave us the idea of albatross as psychological weight, hanging invisibly around our neck. There’s a parallel here with the protagonist of the Factory series, the always unnamed Detective Sergeant burdened both by his work and a terrible family tragedy he is unable to put aside. He is employed by A14, the Department of Unexplained Deaths – the most under-funded, most despised section of the Met but also its most vital. ‘No murder is casual to us, and no murder is unimportant,’ the DS explains, ‘even though murder happens the whole time in a city like this.‘
The Sergeant’s purposeful attitude stands in sharp contrast to how this corpse was found – by accident, and by someone more immediately concerned with his bodily functions. The fact that the body has been left close to a religious building is also telling: the word of God Himself offers no protection here, and any attempts to find meaning in this death are left to the Detective Sergeant. Throughout his investigation he is criticised by his superiors for wasting time on an apparent vagrant. They are blind to the true implications of this murder, just like the buildings ‘weeping with damp‘ that stand along one side of Albatross Road.
On the opposite side lies tube station, a place of transit which brings people into the area but does not hold them there. The passengers are never connected with Albatross Road for very long, and don’t feel the weight of what it conceals. Not normally, anyway – tonight there’s another strike on and the wait for a train is lengthy, queues of people still in evidence at seven o’clock in the evening. The strike also hints at the political consciousness that runs through the series. As it continues, Raymond’s criticisms of the Thatcher government become increasingly overt. They are the ones ultimately responsible for the deprivation and murder which have been allowed to thrive in the capital.
Even with this short extract, it’s clear that Derek Raymond is an extraordinary writer. He’s not to everybody’s taste, but is someone with a clear, distinctive vision, and a strong moral philosophy. He’s also one of that small group of novelists – alongside David Peace and James Ellroy – who encourage me to up my own game, and strive for more ambition in my own work. If I could write an opening paragraph as resonant as this, the rest of the book would surely flow like a river.