Time Out Derek Raymond column
Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open (1984)
Derek Raymond, the pseudonym of Robin Cook, is generally credited with creating a peculiarly British kind of noir. His bracing books are nasty, dark and violent, and it is probably no surprise that his crime novels were first appreciated in France before becoming popular in Britain. His books have the sensibility of the best of French noir from the 60s and 70s, amoral and filled with everyday evil like a Manchette novel or a Melville film, but with a particularly British sensibility. The novels are set in dirty, seedy London and the characters are washed up failures, prostitutes, thieves and perverts all trying to get ahead in a vile, hopeless country that is falling apart. Yet even in this dross there can be a certain lyricism, and Cook’s prose can make amazing stylistic leaps without once losing its balance: ‘He spoke with a South London accent that guttered in his throat like a flame in a cracked chimney’.
He Died with His Eyes Open starts with a body being found just off Hanger Lane, and is set in drinking clubs and broken blocks of flats from Battersea to Lewisham. The body is that of a failed near-alcoholic writer, Charlie Staniland; the mainstream police do not care to investigate too much, and the responsibility falls to a minor officer from the Department of Unexplained Deaths. Staniland left behind his thoughts on numerous cassette tapes, and it from these that the detective pieces together his tragically pathetic life as well as the multiple banal reasons for his death. The scenes and the characters have a pleasingly authentic heft to them, and Cook deploys the tropes of the noir in such a strongly British way – snotty and unpleasant, dull, drab and pointless – that you barely notice the generic rules being adhered to. The country he presents – or, rather, the vicious city that he gives us – is covered in dogshit and full of broken people going nowhere. He anticipates James Ellroy and David Peace, amongst others, in his terrifying drive to see (and show us) the skull beneath the skin.
Cook once claimed that having an ‘Eton background is a terrific help if you’re into vice at all’ (having dropped out at sixteen), and he certainly lived a life of faded grandeur and near-criminal Soho bohemia in true public school style. He was variously a pornographer, novelist, gambler, Italian anarchist politician, labourer and smuggler; he spent time in prison in Spain, and hung out with friends of the Krays and with Beat poets. The character of Staniland in He Died with His Eyes Open, the doomed romantic toff with a love of the lowlife, draws on Cook’s own biography in many ways. Much of the book is given over to transcripts of the murdered man’s taped meditations on the bleakness of life and a world without love. The unnamed detective certainly becomes entranced and influenced by Staniland’s words, and claims that ‘He had made me care about what I was in a way that I didn’t know I could’. Staniland’s outlook on life becomes increasingly depressed, and the pun of the novel’s title refers to his physical state in death but also the fact that he attains an insight into existence which leads him to seek to end his life; his murderers claim he nearly begs them to kill him, so disillusioned has he become.
The protagonist’s journey, buffeted by demands for vengeance and a thirst for truth, is not towards understanding and rapprochement in this book, as you might expect from a detective novel, but to a bleak understanding of the emptiness of everything and the banality of evil: ‘He had framed the question that finally mattered in the two lines he had quoted on a cassette […] What shall we be,/ When we aren’t what we are?’ He Died with His Eyes Open is, like Get Carter, a supreme example of how nasty Britain actually is.
He Died with His Eyes Open is republished by Serpent’s Tail in September