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New to Noir: He Died with His Eyes Open

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He Died with His Eyes OpenDerek Raymond’s Factory Series is a special blend of noir. As James Sallis in his introduction to the first book, He Died with His Eyes Open, says, the five novels are “In between books—not quite what you’d call literary perhaps, but then, not quite crime novels either.” Or, as author A.L. Kennedy puts in a recent review for NPR, “Raymond’s narratives press against somewhere unusual in your brain; they penetrate and interfere, putting you in touch with levels of intensity and disintegration that seem to combine literary achievement with medical intervention.”

He Died with His Eyes Open is noir for today’s reader: void of over-the-top female sensuality and duplicity and the brassy language that begs mockery. Instead, Raymond’s prose is dark, elegant, and suited to the sensibilities of the times in which he wrote, the 1980s. If he had followed his predecessors and adopted the 1950s model it would have felt like a caricature of a genre already prone to exaggeration. Instead, Raymond creates something subtle, unique—something that still feels fresh in 2013.

He Died with His Eyes Open begins—as do most noir novels—with a gruesome murder. A man is found dead in a shrub outside of the Word of God House. When it becomes clear that the victim is just one of the many dregs of society currently polluting the city, the detective from the Serious Crime Unit is quick to call it an open-and-shut case. Who cares about the downtrodden, especially in Thatcherite England? However, our protagonist, Detective Sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths, “by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service,” is not as quick to dismiss the crime.

Derek RaymondThis is what makes the unnamed detective of Raymond’s books different from other noir detectives. While a familiar characteristic of his sleuthing counterparts is cool detachment, this detective cares about those whom others would throw into a 6-foot hole without a second thought. He’s a champion of the poor, of Democracy, of a better society. He takes on “obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did” and comes out more sympathetic for it.

To find out who might have murdered the man, Charles Staniland, a fifty-one year-old alcoholic, the detective spends hours listening to tapes the victim left behind and investigates the grimiest of dive bars 80s London has to offer—always a cut above the patrons but never out of place. It’s not long before he learns of an ex-wife, a junkie son, and a tough girlfriend named Babsie—all whom need to be handled with care. Soon one starts to wonder if the detective has gotten too close to the case; lines and judgment blur—but what noir novel would be complete without moral ambiguity?

To get to the end of this review without mentioning the brilliant designs for all five of Derek Raymond’s novels would be a gross oversight. The bright orange covers with a single image—an everyday object made suggestively gruesome—make the US editions from Melville House dare you to ignore them. Even if the novels weren’t so damn good, you’d want them around as art pieces. Luckily, they’re quality from cover to cover. If you’ve never read a crime novel in your life, The Factory Series is the place to start.

Find He Died with His Eyes Open at your local bookstore
The Life of Derek Raymond [Slideshow]
A.L. Kennedy’s review on NPR


He was found in the shrubbery in front of of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirtieth of March, during the evening rush-hour. It was bloody cold; and an office worker had tripped over the body when he was caught short going home. I don’t know if you know Albatross Road where it runs into Hanger Lane, but if you do you’ll appreciate what a ghastly lonely area it is, with the surface-level tube-station on one side of the street, and dank, blind buildings, weeping with damp, on the other. That evening there was yet another go-slow on, and when I arrived at seven there were people still massing to get down the tube stairs to the trains, which were running very rare.

It was pelting with rain on an east wind when I got there. I found Bowman from Serious Crimes standing over the corpse with a torch, talking to the two coppers off the beat who had been called by the man who had stumbled on him. Water ran off the brim of Bowman’s trilby and dribbled down the helmets of the wooden-tops to end up in their collars.

Bowman handed me the torch without a word and I bent over the dead man. His eyes were open—one only just—the surfaces peppered with the grit that an east wind hurls at you off London streets. He was wearing a cheap grey suit with cigarette burns down the front and a tatty raincoat. He was medium height, with thin hair turning grey and a boozer’s nose, aged between fifty and sixty. Both his arms were broken, and one leg; the bone poked out blue through the trouser cloth. His head had been battered in below the hairline and brains had slopped down his left cheek into the mud. I got the impression, though, despite his injuries he hadn’t died at once. In the dull eyes there was still a flicker of some memory that he meant to take with him wherever he was going.

Written by Gabrielle

March 12, 2013 at 6:51 am

Posted in books, reviews

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