Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Was Dora Suarez

Derek Raymond [aka Robin Cook] has left a legacy of grim existential urban crime thrillers that still haunt me today. I was delighted to read Charles Taylor at The Nation write a lengthy essay on Raymond’s work – especially his factory series.

I mentioned Raymond’s work in an essay I penned when I started this blog on the importance of crime and thriller fiction, of which Raymond’s ‘Factory Novels’ featuring the ‘Nameless Detective’ [who works for the London Police’s Department of Unexplained Deaths] are crucial works of the genre, especially the grim existential work “I Was Dora Suarez”. As Serpents Tail / Profile Books have re-issued the series it is high time you took a look, but I must warn you that they aren’t pretty as Charles Taylor reports here -

Hard-boiled heroes are invariably loners. For No Name, loneliness is the personal hell of having a wife who has been institutionalized for murdering their daughter (perhaps the grimmest back story I've ever encountered for any hard-boiled detective). But that hell is also a result of the cursed role that Raymond has devised for him, turning him into something like a figure out of myth, eternally doomed to listen to voices speaking to him from beyond the grave.

And it's death to whom the victims in these books owe their voices. The alcoholic writer in
He Died With His Eyes Open--having, like No Name, lost his wife and daughter--spends his days in a pub enduring the insults of its patrons, pines for the prostitute who spurns him and upon his demise leaves behind a series of tapes to which No Name listens obsessively. The AIDS-infected prostitute murdered in I Was Dora Suarez leaves a journal that No Name doesn't so much read as flagellate himself with. In How the Dead Live, No Name overhears taped conversations between a doctor gone mad with grief and his now-dead wife, who had told him he was the only one she trusted to remove the cancers defiling her body.

Their stories are baroque, bizarre, even repellent. The characters inhabit the outer limits of the fringe of those who can be thought of as society's victims, and yet the extremity of their tales marks them as doomed messiahs, their suffering meant to stand for, if not absolve, the suffering of all victims. And while the books end with the cases solved, the evildoers either dead or destroyed, there is no sense of triumph, no illusion that justice has been restored. "My tears were not for me," No Name says at the end of
I Was Dora Suarez; "they were for the rightful fury of the people."

That line can be taken as either equal to the anguish that has preceded it--as the benediction to the horrific I Was Dora Suarez--or an example of overwrought writing. Because he wrote hard-boiled detective fiction, Raymond was prone to sentimentality disguised as the dirty, unvarnished truth about the world, and, especially when No Name is threatening an uncooperative witness or showing he's uncowed by a superior's rank, the books can show a relish for aggression. In his introduction to
He Died With His Eyes Open, crime novelist James Sallis tries gamely to bring up the perpetually unresolved question of literature as it pertains to the detective novel. It's a question that critics usually pretend to settle either by falsely elevating the work in question to literature or, equally falsely, by citing aesthetic flaws (like Raymond's sentimentality) and the reliance on formula to argue that a "low" genre can never touch us in the way that literature does.

Read all of Charles Taylor’s overview of Derek Raymond and his existential look at the darkness of his view of the world here but a final warning for those faint of heart, when it comes to I Was Dora Suarez

Reading the book made me nauseous. Rereading it for this piece, I found it necessary to restrict my time with it to daylight hours. Reading it after dark gave me nightmares. Nor do I want to play at listing the specifics of the book, thereby feeding the kind of interest that will send people to it for a kick, the way they go see the latest piece of horror-movie torture porn. I don't know if I Was Dora Suarez can be called literature at all. If it's possible for a book to be utterly repugnant and deeply compassionate at the same time, then I Was Dora Suarez is.

Derek Raymond’s work explores the darkest heart of reality, and for serious advocates of the existential – he is as essential as is Camus.

1 comment:

  1. In an age where post-modernism is, pathetically, worn on endless worthy, fashionably distressed sleeves, the contemporary novel would seem to have lost its capacity to shock. However, this novel might serve as a possible anodyne to such complacent musings. Inexorably disgusting, depressing and nihilistic...and yet... utterly compulsive...