A journey into the intestines of insanity
By Jonathan Woods.
Derek Raymond, I Was Dora Suarez, Serpent’s Tail, 2008
I always approach the revival of an underground literary classic with trepidation. Will it live up to its reputation as the purveyor of the perfect blowjob? Or will it be like discovering at your 30th high school reunion that the hot blonde you loved from afar has morphed into a frumpy house frau with eight children, an overweight schnauzer and a beer gut.
In this ambivalent state of mind I turned to the first page of the Serpent’s Tail reissue of I Was Dora Suarez, the most highly touted of Derek Raymond’s five London police procedurals, known as the Factory series, and starring an unnamed police sergeant who works in the Bureau of Unexplained Deaths. Raymond, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, abandoned a life of privilege for a roost on the bohemian edge. He is reported to have hung out with the likes of William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso at the famed Beat Hotel in Paris. He began writing his acclaimed crime series in his late forties.
Raymond doesn’t shilly-shally around. The first thirty pages of I Was Dora Suarez catapults the reader into the swirling, twisted mind of a psychopathic serial killer as he brutally offs Dora Suarez and her landlady Betty Carstairs. Grotesque details abound: the killer sups of the victim’s blood, then defecates at the scene of slaughter. What is the reader to make of this? Raymond wants to take us beyond the banal tabloid headlines, to show us what evil truly looks like. His writing in this first section is eerily vivid in the manner of Joseph Conrad. We truly see and feel a madman getting his rocks off in the midst of a brutal axe murder, his thoughts a welter of alien desires.
Interestingly, Raymond shows with what abundant detail we can describe the depths of pure evil consummated in this world. But death itself remains unplumbable, a brick wall, the absolute unknown. However horrendous the here-and-now may be, it’s all we have. Raymond’s detective says of Suarez:
…I saw how, in her last abominable agony, the poor darling had wanted to try and stand up again, to escape death for just one second more so that she could explain everything that she was so suddenly having to leave.
But one can only look so long at pictures of the dead at Auschwitz or peruse the horrific pages of a book of pathology photographs before the stomach lurches and the mind turns away.
Luckily, chapter one comes to an end and I Am Dora Suarez becomes a pulpy tough-guy procedural in which the unnamed investigator brow beats criminals and businessmen (they’re one and the same to Raymond, a product himself of industrial privilege) and tells his superiors where to stick it in his frenzied search for Suarez’s killer. Here’s Raymond at his tough-guy best, when the no name detective and his co-investigator Stevenson interrogate the owner of a sleazy club where Suarez worked:
“Meanwhile, nothing you can tell us about the Suarez/Carstairs/Roatta killer at all?” I said. “Your sportsman with an axe handy, reckons himself in a mirror, fast with a Quickhammer?”
“It’s your last chance,” said Stevenson.
Scalo said: “I couldn’t help you.”
Stevenson reached a glass off the bar, got his cock out and pissed in it. He handed the glass to Scalo.
“Drink,” he said. “They say rats get thirsty.”
Derek Raymond‘s nameless investigator is neither a burned out gumshoe with the heart of a knight-errant like Raymond Chandler‘s Marlowe nor a wisecracking lush like Dashiell Hammett‘s Nick Charles. He is a Biblical avenging angel outside of time:
I caught sight of my face as I passed the bouncer’s mirror at an angle facing the stairs as I went down; it looked to me as though I had died a thousand years ago.
For Raymond’s detective Suarez, an AIDS-ravaged prostitute, becomes the personification of human innocence:
I walked up the moth-eaten carpet of the club to the street; I went to the Factory [police headquarters] thinking of Suarez’s body, lying axed and naked on our earth as if, poor child, she were all our loved ones, all of them.
His obsession with Suarez rises even to a moment of necrophilia, as he contemplates her brutalized corpse:
I knelt and kissed her short black hair which still smelled of the apple-scented shampoo she had washed it with just last night; only now the hair was rank, matted with blood, stiff and cold.
For Raymond the war against evil requires a ruthlessness and an obsessiveness on the part of his avenger as emotionally whacked out as the twisted psychopathic quarry.
As the investigation closes in on the killer additional horrors are disclosed. At times one wishes that Raymond would have painted his madman with a more elegant brush. Poe‘s raving lunatics in stories like ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ and ‘The Black Cat’ engage in horrible depravities but Poe’s artfulness allows the reader to savor his characters’ raging insanity with a shiver of delight, even recognition. Raymond’s prose is for the most part clipped and unadorned. But perhaps that is the only way to present the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt described the Holocaust, in our age of image overload. For Raymond evil can never be amusing or clever. Yet even in this harsh book there are occasional lyrical moments:
Such light as there was in the flat faded as I searched it…the afternoon assumed a short, steep winter slant, dulling the high windows a grimy yellow and blackening the plane trees outside, while in the basement flat someone played the same Chopin prelude over and over and over.
If I Am Dora Suarez is rarely beautiful, it is a book not soon forgotten.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Woods is a full-time writer living in Dallas, Texas. In addition to stories, he is working on a novel, a sequel to Jean Rhys’ After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. When not writing he works part-time in a small art gallery in Dallas: Dahlia Woods Gallery.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 12th, 2008.