2006, Serpent’s Tail (originally published 1984)
Filed under: Mystery
|C4 Ratings...out of||10|
I’ve had a tough time finding a book to follow up my last great read, as is usually the case. I’ve started about half a dozen, but none of them held my attention past fifty pages, until I came across this piece by A.L. Kennedy about the 1984 mystery novel He Died with His Eyes Open, the first in the “Factory” mystery series by the British crime writer Derek Raymond.
Kennedy says, “I’ve read He Died With His Eyes Open twice. I don’t know if I could stand to read it again. Like all of Derek Raymond’s work, it has a remarkable and disturbing physicality.” It’s true. Raymond’s world is a grossly imagined one full of lecherous pub governors, filthy apartments, and sadistically violent criminals, though not sociopaths… his characters have more complex psyches than simply amoral monsters.
For a modern mystery reader, this book might be unsatisfying. It’s relatively sparse on plot, following a lone, unnamed detective in the Unexplained Deaths unit at London’s Metropolitan Police. When a middle-aged drunk turns up messily beaten to death, the detective takes it a bit personally and sifts through the victim’s life to find out why. Luckily, the victim left a long series of journals on tapes (thus the cover), and much of the novel simply transcribes these tapes.
There’s a quote at the end of this reprint from Drive author James Sallis, who calls Raymond’s Factory series “literature truly written from the edge of human experience.” That should give you a decent idea of the kind of book we’ve got here. Raymond’s plot essentially sketches out a straight line, and though there’s a rather absurd reveal at the end, the oomph of the novel comes from the messy lives it depicts.
Raymond writes his nameless detective with a mix of sneering cynicism and a yearning poeticism. The man is a raw nerve inside a carefully maintained shell that he uses to pretend to be a tough detective. Take, for example, this simple description of the murder victim in the beginning of the book:
Inside the ambulance the ruined face of Charles Locksley Alwin Staniland screamed silently up at its white roof which a British Leyland operator had sprayed one day when he happened not to be on strike and needed the overtime.
He reads like a savvy high school student at a juvenile detention center, someone who wants to be noticed, but doesn’t want anyone to get close enough to mean anything to him.
And, as you might expect from a sullen misanthrope who’s simultaneously desperate for human connection, the detective works alone, by diving deeply into Staniland’s life, and then going undercover and weaselling his way into the lives of his primary suspects.
Those suspects have the universally distasteful existences you find in most Scandinavian thrillers, the difference being that, in the Scandinavian novels, the twisted citizens at least have the decency to hide their depravity. In a Scandinavian thriller, a seemingly innocent small town gets unmasked as a craven den of perversion and awfulness. In Raymond’s book, the town is London, and it never seemed innocent.
Through the tapes, Raymond pieces together a complex portrait of Charles Staniland, who becomes quite a bit more interesting than his one-line epitaph—”middle-aged drunk, beaten to death”—would have you believe. As we learn more about Staniland, we learn more about the nameless detective, too, and the result is more a depressing character study than a mystery to be solved.
So, this is not a beach book, but as an answer to the tossed off fluff mysteries all too pervasive these days, it’s worth a read.