“It seems that all that was good has died, And is decaying in me.”
-Disturbed, “Down with the Sickness”
Hardboiled crime is a special genre. Derek Raymond, the founder of British Noir, took it to a whole new level with his Factory series. Nothing was like it before, and nothing has been like it since. It also includes the design of one of the most heinous fictional crimes in the history of all entertainment.
Raymond, born Robert William Arthur Cook, created a simple character in the Factory series: an unnamed sergeant. This man, the one the reader knows as Noir’s classic unlikable protagonist, works for the A14 division of London’s Metropolitan Police. Or, as the branch is also known as, the Department of Unexplained Deaths.
The author sets the stage in development, but its simplicity is genius. Raymond gives us a man with no name who handles grotesque murders with no apparent motive, suspect, worthy victim or sufficient evidence. The nameless can’t be explained just like the deaths he is assigned—a perfect love affair between character and cause. It also subtly alludes to the fact, through crime as a metaphor, that persons of power and popularity chose prestige, like picking the most athletic kid on the playground first while leaving the ugly scraps for the less important who dwell in lower, unclaimed societal statuses.
The series begins with He Died With His Eyes Open (1984). This not only remains the best title of the grouping, but perhaps one of the best hardboiled crime books ever written. It changed the genre by inserting philosophical thought into a style that was normally structured for fast-paced entertainment with little depth. However, it didn’t stray from the standard characteristics of the literary category which is fascinating. It still gave readers mystery, bleakness, wit and sharp tongues, but added the element of furthering the discussion after the last page. It made readers think.
The remaining titles in the five-book series include, in order: The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), How the Dead Live (1986), I Was Dora Suarez (1990) and Dead Man Upright (1993).
One aspect of the series is that the crimes, though all gruesome, progressively get worse or stranger. Nothing will ever compare to what happened in I Was Dora Suarez, however.
Raymond’s narrative goes deep below the surface of just a shocking crime and the path to resolution and closure. There, in fact, is no closure after each respective case file is sealed because the crimes are parallel with the unnamed sergeant’s, as well as the suspects’ he pursues, thoughts on society.
In his personal life, Raymond made it public that he did not particularly fit in with the upper crust he was thrust upon from birth. He challenged his upbringing constantly, and his escape became writing. With the passion he wrote with and the topics he brought to light through controversial creativity, he established a signature dialogue. Whether said dialogue was portrayed as negative or positive is a rather moot point because if an author can form a discussion without being involved, then they have produced something impactful.
Raymond’s literary work focuses on the ugliness of society. The platform and genre he chose was a perfect foundation because it reached an audience and demographic that was ripe for unexpected influence; it put readers in an urban landscape, immersing them on the streets where many found an either direct or indirect relation. An interaction they were accustomed to or wanted to understand on another level.
Anna Pasolini, contributing author of Serial Crime Fiction (2015) wrote, “The five novels included in the Factory series encompass the core issues in Raymond’s literary and political project: a representation of the margins of society and of its evils aimed at uncovering and overthrowing the power relations embedded beneath its apparently plain surface” (p. 144).
The author’s transition from crime to crime increased the severity of his underlying message beneath the prose. It’s as if readers experienced Raymond’s transformation from frustration to absolute disgust. It wasn’t expected, but it was needed and welcomed; it was a literary fit decades in the making. Yet, even among readers who aren’t fazed by the most shocking illustrations, the descriptions of the unimaginable acts—details that may question Raymond’s overall sanity and own sociopathic nature—in I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright may have gone too far.
Still, it was needed and welcomed.
The controversial crimes in the last two novels of the series are unsettling, the most disturbing on display in I Was Dora Suarez. It wasn’t necessarily the crime itself, though ghastly beyond the imagination; it was the whole process of the performance. The victim was dismembered and her open wounds were violated, but the multiple forms of defecation by the assailant and his masochistic self-mutilation was what left chills. Somehow, halfway through the book, it got worse during an autopsy, and the final scene brought back the bumps. To put it in perspective, if this was ever made into a modern film, or even adapted to a case for crime television, the crime couldn’t be shown or even spoke of without a non-pornographic rating above “R” or “TV-MA.”
However, the unimaginable, yet strangely outstanding criminal concept behind the act, was where Raymond’s creativity shined. It was amazing this was never conjured before. Perhaps there are better word choices than the accolades, if taken in such a way, for the storyline, but it’s not the situation that deserves praise, it’s the fact that it was created, used and presented as a viable disgusting possibility during this time period, and actually captured a major issue that was trending in society.
With the addition of the crime(s) in Dead Man Upright, Raymond’s imagination must be addressed. He was not a sociopathic person as some could assume just from reading his words. He was quite colorful and emotional, on the contrary. I Was Dora Suarez broke the author; the book was a difficult burden, but a task he had to complete, only to realize what he had done after the fact. His reaction to his own work, his empathetic behavior to a fictional situation proves he was not sociopathic.
He said in his memoir, The Hidden Files (1992), “I know I wondered half way through Suarez if I would get through—I mean, if my reason would get through. For the trouble with an experience like Suarez is that you become what you’re writing” (p. 133).
The plot changed him and it was apparent in his shift of writing, even the shift of the unnamed sergeant’s life.
Each novel, or “black novel” as they have earned the moniker, in the Factory Series offers something unique and addresses different aspects of society and mentality.
He Died With His Eyes Open helps us understand the unnamed sergeant and his bleak outlook on life. This is most apparent has he absorbs the recordings left behind by the bludgeoned victim and relates to the viewpoint. The reader gets a feel for not only the character’s personality, but also the true setting and issues revolving around that time in London. This is the best title in the series because, and I will repeat, it brought philosophical thought into hardboiled crime.
The Devil’s Home on Leave delves deeper into mental health; though it was a theme throughout the series, this was more specific and involved post-traumatic stress and literal and figurative forms of addiction. It also involved power and status. A deranged hitman has been done and will continue to be done in the genre, but the metaphor for how the crook was used and by whom, his techniques and backstory are a direct reflection on societal standing and trauma. For reference, Raymond, as Cook, was a corporal in the National Service. Though good, this title is the fifth best in the series.
How the Dead Live gives the reader love in a loveless world. The story almost didn’t fit, but after the reader processes the message, it almost fits too well. There is love and beauty in death, there is devotion in the most disturbing of ways. Also, this is where the reader gains more insight into the personality and life of the unnamed sergeant. He is being developed with more understanding of reason and humanizing the otherwise overlooked lowlifes and unwittingly banished now-reclusive ex-socialites, showing admiration for the enemy. He gave life to people through death. An underrated title, this is the third best in the series.
I Was Dora Suarez pushed the limits of everything. There isn’t much more to be said that hasn’t been mentioned. The book was repulsive to the point where Raymond’s publisher at the time vomited over his desk while reading the draft and immediately told him to take the work elsewhere. Yet, the underlying message was that of societal contamination in a variety of aspects. What the book did give us is even more depth to the unnamed sergeant; it gave him deep sympathy and meaning to his own life. It gave him a reason for redemption not only for the victim, but to fill the voids and pain present from the demons and memory he personally possessed. Despite the criticism, this is the second best title in the series, and not because of the shocking crime.
Dead Man Upright gave the reader what has been overdone: a look into the psyche of a serial killer. It also, and somewhat expectedly, used a snuff film as evidence—which is why it’s the second most disturbing of the series’ acts. It wasn’t the first work to examine the mind of an unhinged psychopath, and it probably has been more overdone since and not before, but it was different and extensive for the genre. The intention of the book, however, may not have been to just provide a form of entertainment, but rather closure to the mystery that was the unnamed sergeant. It gave answers; it gave readers deeper looks into reoccurring characters, or for the main character, relationships and significance in the world. The ultimate summary in metaphor: the killer was society and the unnamed sergeant was the counter thought. The title was the fourth best in the series, but vital to the masterpiece as a whole.
Raymond explained, “A special mood is necessary to make language plastic enough to convey such experience exactly; experience so devastatingly simple that, like love, it verges on the indescribable. Nearly every attempt to convey it can really only be described as another endless series of attempts since we cannot describe what we are not yet in a position to know—and yet it is the black novel’s absolute duty to express it. T.S. Eliot, I think, got closest to describing the nature of this challenge when he wrote (I paraphrase): It is not necessary to die to describe death” (p. 144).
He later added, “Nothing else much matters once you have achieved the hardest thing, which is to act out of conviction. Even if you have been beaten by evil, in the bitterness of the defeat the battle has left a trace for the others, and you can go feeling clean. I recognise that I am a minor writer; but this does not affect the depth of my convictions” (p. 287).
Perhaps, then, it wasn’t the murders that were most disturbing and needed closure; it was the times. Readers followed the journey of an unnamed sergeant; they followed a needed counter belief combating a damaged society.
I must first state that I do not recommend Raymond’s work for every reader. I know many aren’t affected by this style of writing or imagination, but then again, nothing like this has been read. If your advantageous enough, your curiosity may be met with delight, but the scenery does come with a warning label. The series is not for the squeamish; it’s certainly not for everyone. It is, however, a fascinating work of literature.
The Factory series was needed. Not because of the gruesome crimes, shock value, sharp wit or superb writing, but because of the philosophical understanding, in the mind of the author, that paralleled the issues society faced during that era. It enhanced the hardboiled crime genre, made it more academic in a sense, instead of just offering raunchy entertainment with enough bleakness to satisfy but not continue a reader’s thought.
Raymond wrote in How the Dead Live, “I’m afraid even those of us who have never committed murder are nevertheless guilty of it because we enjoy death at second hand, just as we enjoy watching a thriller on television. After all, what’s the use of a newspaper to the general public if there’s not a single good murder in it?” (pp. 2-3).
Murder and crime surround us in various mediums, in fantasy and reality. We’re victims without an escape other than avoidance, which is sometimes too tall of a task. Raymond made hardboiled crime meaningful, thought-provoking and relevant, and blended our separate fears into bittersweet grotesqueness. The Factory series is tragically beautiful and there’s nothing else like it.