He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm starting on the second instalment of this brilliant series of crime novels today and thought it only fair that I educate you on something British that leaves all this Scandinavian crime writing in its dust. Compared to Derek Raymond Steig, Jo et al read like a cozy mystery.
Blurb: When a middle-aged alcoholic is found brutally battered to death on a roadside in West London, the case is assigned to a tough-talking cynic from the Department of Unexplained Deaths. Our narrator must piece together the history of his blighted existence and discover the agents of its cruel end. What he doesn’t expect is that digging for the truth will demand plenty of lying.
Thoughts: I had a feeling about this one, I desperately wanted (needed?) to read the book from the second I heard about it, yet when I finally bought a copy I allowed it to sit on my shelf for at least two months. I'm glad I did, it's an incredible piece of noir writing and to have devoured it instantly would've have been a massive disservice to Derek Raymond.
Part way through I was reminded of Ross Macdonald's famous quote about Raymond Chandler, how "he was a slumming angel" and that term really feels like an apt description for the victim in this novel, the protagonist of this novel and the writer of this novel.
Raymond dropped out of the famous Eton public school and followed a career path that resembled Charles Bukowski more than any number of sub-royal upper class Brits that he might have considered his peers. He moved to France and lived on the margins of society in both England and France and it is this dual experience and knowledge that imbues the two main characters with such insight and purpose.
Our nameless hero taking a journey in to the downward spiralling life of Charlie Staniland via his words - written and spoken on to casettes - and then literally in to the life he had chosen to lead as he comes face to face with the filth, cretins, lowlifes (and also the decent hardworking people who had fallen through the cracks of Thatchers Britain.) It's a journey that almost goes beyond noir, it's black, it's bleak and it's truly powerful stuff. As the Evening Standard is quoted on the cover of this version, Raymond is "unafraid to face the reality of man's evil" and it is this fearlessness that puts the novel in to the literary category of crime writing, takes it that step further in to greatness.
The lead character is from the old school pulp noir territory, down these dark oppressive roads a man must walk, not because he chooses to but because he must type stuff. A loner because he chooses to be, taking chances with his life to ensure justice for those who otherwise wouldn't receive it yet with a worldview that never quite reaches the depths of despair no matter what the situation.
Having grown up in England I may have a greater appreciation for some of this stuff than those who didn't, there are aspects that are very much part of "Little England" that may not be so easily understood by others but that aside this is still a fabulous piece of work that should be appreciated by all of us with a penchant for the darkest of noirs and who enjoy taking a journey in to the depths of human depravity with a hardboiled hero at our side.
For me this is David Goodis (at his very best) territory but with a British slant on it, take this wonderful piece of description for example: "both armies were attended by secretaries who wittered blondely away at each other across tepid gin and tonics," the cynical worldview we expect from a Marlowe or a Spade delivered with an accurate dig at the very British way of serving alcohol.
A remarkable work from a very talented man, it makes you care for somebody whose name you never hear mentioned, his clear affection towards the drunken mess of a man at the centre of the mystery is evident and if you don't care for Charlie Staniland or his life you will at least care that there is somebody out there desperate to bring his killers to justice.
“I have taken a terrible beating from the truth and feel tamed, wise and desperate, as if I had taken a short route to wisdom through a mirror, and cut myself badly on it as I passed through.”
For those of you who look forward to movie adaptations there was a French movie in 1985 called On ne meurt que deux fois starring Charlotte Rampling which I am yet to see and a quick look on imdb suggests that a new TV series is in the works based on the five book sequence, so something to look forward to.
Further viewing suggestions:
This Is England I.D. Meantime
Further reading suggestions:
The Red Riding Quartet by David Peace
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