Derek Raymond’s quartet of factory novels feature some of the bleakest descriptions of low life London put down on the page. Raymond manages to conjure in his view of 1980’s Britain a similar sense of morbid detail and helplessness that the painter Walter Sickert captured in his portraits of London’s waifs and strays a hundred years before. Whilst I am a huge admirer of Raymond’s work and his observations of London changing landscape rival any of those to be found in Iain Sinclair’s writing (there is a chapter dedicated to Raymond in Sinclair’s ‘Lights Out For the Territory’), there have been times whilst reading the factory quartet that I have had to put down the book and walk away, such was the uncomfortable detail of the violence when it inevitably explodes. There are time then, that ‘How The Dead Live’ , the thirds in this series, strangely feels like a breath of fresh air after having your head forced under water. Like the classic detectives from the golden age of American crime fiction, Raymond’s anonymous charge, in this book, has a real flair for snappy one-liners, wry social observations and there were times, reading this, when I imagined the writer himself doubled over and howling with laughter as he sat behind his typewriter. At times I was reminded of Kenneth William’s diaries, Joe Orton’s plays (and diaries) as well as the philosophy of Sartre and Camus whose combined influences more obviously pervades these books sense of isolation and loneliness.
In this book, our unnamed detective from Scotland Yard’s Unexplained Deaths arrives in the small town of Thornhill to investigate the disappearance of the eccentric (he’s been struck off the list) doctor’s wife last seen, six months before, wandering around town looking like a shadow of her former self, wearing a thick veil, obscuring the lower half of her face.
The morning after he arrives, our narrator, already smelling something suspicious underfoot, and staying in the local B & B, comes down for breakfast to find that he has already missed it. Raymond’s description of the girl behind the switchboard and his dialogue with her is the priceless chatter of classic detectives only Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade had never tried to get up in time for breakfast in an English B & B.
An old blonde whose head looked as if it had been left behind in a train and whose bra was too big for her breasts sat behind the switchboard. She wore a ring with a big enough stone in it to deter a sex maniac, but had a nose like a pea shooter that would have put him off anyway.
“What was you wanting?”
“Too late!” she crooned triumphantly. “Kitchen shuts sharp at half eight, nothing till lunchtime now. Here,” she said, pointing at a notice board behind her with a finger that looked like it as if it had been borrowed from an archery course, “can’t you read?”