Workingman’s Death: Dead Man Upright

05/09/2012 4:00 AM |

Dead Man Upright
By Derek Raymond
(Melville House)

Five hard-boiled police procedurals which are widely considered to rank among the most important works of British crime fiction ever published, Derek Raymond’s Factory novels concern the investigations of an unnamed fortyish sergeant stubbornly lodged in A14, the London Metropolitan Police’s Department of Unexplained Deaths.

The sergeant describes his workplace as composed of “loners employed on clearing up unimportant deaths to close some little file… We aren’t allowed near anything that looks like page one, we’ve all been passed over for promotion, and we’ve all been punctured by buckshot, knives, or both.” In the grotty, dysfunctional, invariably inclement Thatcher-era England, our hero leads a solitary quest for justice underpinned by a pining for national regeneration: “a time when people felt that the past mattered and that something good might happen in the future.” His cases, involving the indigent, the forgotten, or the unidentifiable, are solved through immersion, a solitary process of complete identification with the killer (better to catch him) and the deceased (better to stoke the fires of his righteous indignation).

The process is not unlike the writer’s art, and in a genre largely given to potboilers, Derek Raymond approached his work as art, with bonesaw penetration. Raymond was born 1931 as Robert Cook, heir to a textiles fortune and a family castle in Kent, but lit out from Eton for a footloose tour of the lowlife instead. The victim in the first Factory novel, 1984’s He Died with His Eyes Open, is a downwardly mobile 51-year-old scribbler, in many respects a profile of Raymond, from his odd-job employments to his declared statement of artistic purpose on a confessional cassette tape: “Anyone who conceives of writing as an agreeable stroll towards a middle-class lifestyle will never write anything but crap.”

Dead Man Upright, published the year before Raymond’s death of cancer in 1994, is the fifth and last of the Factory novels, which have been regularly reprinted by Melville House’s International Crime series since fall of last year. It is also the weakest, for it has the unenviable task of scripting a sequel to an apocalypse—the preceding books have detailed the gradual mental unraveling of the sergeant, concluding in 1990’s I Was Dora Suarez, a work of flaying, hell-bound prose which does not beg an encore.

Dead Man Upright finds the sergeant working to prevent rather than solve a murder, drawn to the case of a prim, quiet old man who has a curious pattern of serial dating quiet middle-aged women, which might easily lend itself to serial killing. With the rather promising premise of a murderer who exploits his victims’ last-chance-at-love hopes, Raymond shows little of his characteristic tractor-beam engagement to the inner lives of his prey and predators. Raymond’s other specialty is his tough-guy palaver, as generously flavored with the argot of the London underworld as in pre-Victorian slummer Pierce Egan, best displayed in the sergeant’s circling, prowling interrogations of “villains,” as the he calls his suspects when not sarcastically caressing them with feminine endearments. This is almost entirely absent in Dead Man Upright, replaced instead by a lugubrious coda involving the analysis of the killer, which seems like so much page-count stuffing. An awful anticlimax, then—but one must read the essential first four Factory novels first, to discover just how much it is so.