Derek Raymond’s bleak and brutal crime fiction remains too much for many who like their murder to be lightweight and cosy.
I Was Dora Suarez, published in 1990, was the fourth book in Derek Raymond’s impressively dour Factory series of London-based crime novels that began in 1984 and followed an unnamed Detective Sergeant (unless, of course, Sergeant was actually his surname) from A14 – the Department of Unexplained Deaths – as he investigated murders that were seen as too insignificant and unimportant for his colleagues to bother with – there would be no promotions of kudos from solving these cases involving nobodies. The series is notable for the style of writing – Raymond (real name: Robin Cook – he changed it to avoid being confused with the American writer or the British Labour politician after writing under that name throughout the 1960s when he penned a series of acclaimed novels like A State of Denmark) had an aggressive yet sentimental style, mixing tough street cop dialogue with a curious intimacy as his central character delved deep into the lives of the victims, identifying with them to the point of almost becoming them. It is a remarkable body of work, quite unlike any other crime fiction, and it reached its peak – or maybe its zenith – with I Was Dora Suarez.
The novel begins with extreme violence – we literally come in during the middle of a murder – and gets more bizarrely unpleasant and dark as it goes on. This is crime fiction that outdoes any horror that you might read, mixing bleak sexual extremity, self-torture, horrific murder and madness that is entirely nihilistic. The Detective Sergeant becomes obsessed with the titular character and her terrible life of exploitation and abuse, as he hunts a masochistic, cannibalistic sexual serial killer. It’s dark and despairing, grotesque and heartbreaking in its exploration of the lowest points of human experience.
The book had a strong impact – famously, it caused his publisher’s reader Dan Franklin, to vomit over his desk and as a result was rejected by the publisher. The novel became infamous for ‘going too far’ in theme and description, yet became his most renowned novel anyway. Plans for film adaptations or either the whole series of just Suarez have been made by the BBC, Claude Chabrol and Roman Polanski at different times, but the books feel almost unfilmable in their intimacy – and Dora Suarez is surely too much to be filmed without robbing it of the horrors that make it so potent. As he said in his literary memoir The Hidden Files:
“Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out forever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once. I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up – if you do come up. It’s like working in a mine; you hope that hands you can’t see know what they’re doing and will pull you through”.
In 1993, Raymond teamed up with James Johnston and Terry Edwards of Gallon Drunk for a recording of highlights from the novel, which was first performed at the National Film Theatre and then issued on CD by Clawfist in a version adapted by Geoff Cox. It’s a fascinating recording – Raymond/Cook is not the most natural performer but this seems to make his reading all the more authentic, and the music is sympathetically moody. It’s the sort of disc that should be seen as a classic but instead has slipped into obscurity. I had assumed that it was long out of print but research reveals that it is, in fact, available for a bargain price from Sartorial Records – at least, it’s still on the company’s mail-order page. I haven’t seen or heard their version but the original is well worth picking up if you can find it and I can’t see why this will be any different. You can listen to an extract from the recording below and if you are especially tight-fisted, a YouTube search will find the full recording.
Raymond died a year after the CD release and although the first four of the Factory novels are still in print (the final book, Dead Man Upright, has never had the same reputation as the earlier novels; perhaps there was nothing that he could have written that would have the same impact as Suarez and so this 1993 novel has always felt like a letdown for readers), he has arguably slipped out of the public consciousness – not exactly forgotten certainly, but it is fair to say that his books are rarely discussed in the same way that other crime fiction and authors are, perhaps because I Was Dora Suarez now will seem even more shocking and difficult for easily offended audiences and the books lack the glamour and cool of more respected Noir fiction or the approachability of modern crime writing; in effect, Raymond’s character and his fascination with the underdog have seen his work treated in much the same way as the murder victims of his writing – ignored in favour of more commercial and fashionable writing. But he is head and shoulders above the populist crime writers whose characters make for a cosy TV crime drama. Perhaps we should be grateful that ITV or the BBC haven’t picked up the books and cast some current darling of the viewers as a cleaned-up Detective Sergeant, sanding off the rough edges and sanitising the narratives. This is grim crime fiction that should be left alone.
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!