Death at One's Elbow: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels

By Charles Taylor

This article appeared in the January 5, 2009 edition of The Nation.

December 17, 2008

Derek Ramond, 1989 Serpent's Tail

Serpent's Tail
Derek Ramond, 1989

"Murder, which is a frustration...of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news." When Raymond Chandler wrote those lines in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," he was talking about detective stories in which murder, however persistent, is seen as a violation of the social order. In the "Factory" series, the sequence of crime novels written from 1984 to 1990 by the late English crime writer Derek Raymond, murder has become a perfect expression of the prevailing political order--in this case, Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Thatcher famously claimed that there is no such thing as society. In the Factory novels, the social order can't be violated because it has already been dismantled.

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Thatcher is never named in the Factory books, but her shadow falls over them. With their dogged, lyrical, sometimes sentimental, sometimes appallingly violent manner, they offer a consistent portrait of a world in which people are not respected for their humanity but valued according to their usefulness to those in power. To those foolish enough to still think of Thatcher as a female version of Ronald Reagan--in other words, those who don't understand how her undisguised social Darwinism was far more ruthless than Reagan's blithe free-market cheerleading--the novels might be a shock. The books are certainly as bracing as much of the anti-Thatcher art of the era--novels like Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Jonathan Coe's The Winshaw Legacy; the music of the Mekons and the more pointed Elvis Costello songs like "Pills and Soap" and "Tramp the Dirt Down"; and especially the astonishing vitality of English cinema of the times, in movies such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Mona Lisa and High Hopes, and in forgotten films like Defense of the Realm, Letter to Brezhnev, No Surrender and Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

The brutality of some hard-boiled detective heroes, their contempt for procedure and regulations, seems to belong to a right-wing law-and-order ethos. But apart from the fallacy of equating order with conservatism, the politics of the genre are not so easily pinned down. (Besides, from Thatcher trashing the National Health Service to Bush abandoning New Orleans and demolishing the world economy, the restoration of order is increasingly being left to liberals.) The rebelliousness of the detective hero--his contempt for hypocrisy, the way he usually finds himself pitted against the interests of the powerful, his thirst for justice--makes him a figure who cannot be controlled or counted upon to uphold the status quo. These contradictions recall Norman Mailer's meditation on the nature of police: "Supposed to be law-enforcers, they tend to conceive of themselves as the law.... They are attached umbilically to the concept of honesty, they are profoundly corrupt. They possess more physical courage than the average man, they are unconscionable bullies; they serve the truth, they are psychopathic liars."

The nameless cop hero of the Factory novels--we'll call him No Name--is one of those denizens of detective stories and police procedurals who get into trouble because they break the rules and rub the top brass the wrong way. No Name has no time for niceties or regulations or respect for his superiors (one book ends with him breaking a supervisor's jaw). He's an outcast, but not because he's a brutal bastard. Rather, he's an outcast because, in a society that has given up nearly all notions of justice or service, he takes his job seriously.

The police division No Name works for is Unexplained Deaths, the sinkhole reserved for the cases that will bring the cops who solve them no publicity, no promotion. "We work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don't matter and who never did," says No Name in He Died With His Eyes Open. "We have the lowest budget, we're last in line for allocations, and promotion is so slow that most of us never get past the rank of sergeant.... No murder is casual to us, and no murder is unimportant, even though murder happens the whole time in a city like this."

The voice may sound familiar to readers of detective fiction: it's the hard-boiled hero, cynical on the outside, wounded on the inside. But pay attention to the stray lines: "people who don't matter and who never did" and "we're last in line for allocations." Then consider these seemingly tossed-off remarks about the deaths No Name investigates over the course of the books: "There was nothing about Staniland in the paper. Staniland wasn't news." "Nobody was ever caught for her, and Mrs. Mayhew made four lines in the Watford Observer." No Name on his superiors' reaction to a double murder: "It's the press that bothers them up there...ot the bodies." The England of the Factory series is a place where the idea of government service has become, at best, quaint, and where murder has become a convenient means of disposing of the undesirable.

Other novelists fantasized about Thatcher planning the obsolescence of those people who didn't fit into her agenda. In McEwan's The Child in Time, the nameless future Prime Minister (never referred to by a gender-specific pronoun--the implication is that Thatcher would rule forever) institutes a program requiring beggars to purchase a government license, thus eliminating thousands from the unemployment rolls. In Coe's The Winshaw Legacy, the most considered and murderous of the anti-Thatcher novels, an architect of Tory rule prohibits the use of the word "hospital" in all discussions of the National Health Service. "We call them 'provider units,'" he writes. "The hospital becomes a shop, the operation becomes a piece of merchandise, and normal business practices prevail: pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap. The beautiful simplicity of this idea astounds me."

The beautiful, ruthless simplicity of the Factory novels--the title of the series refers to the London Police HQ--is that Raymond rewrites the basic ethos of the classic detective novel. Where once murder had been a rent in the social fabric, now it is something like a means of social control--Thatcher's method of governance as social engineering taken to its most logical and brutal extreme.

About Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. more...
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