Thursday, 20 January 2011

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

I found myself browsing the crime shelves again and dug out this nugget of hard boiled fiction from one of Britain’s overlooked writers, Derek Raymond. He wrote five books in the ‘Factory’ series about an unnamed detective sergeant in the ‘Department of Unexplained Deaths’.

Left with the unloved and the unmissed cases that never make the news, the detective is investigating the murder of a middle aged drunk, Charles Staniland, found brutally beaten to death in West London. There’s not much to go on at first, just a face, (what’s left of it), a few letters and a stack of audio cassettes in his squalid flat:

He was a drinker, too – you could tell that from his nose, and from his problems, as shown up in what he had recorded. Not an alcoholic, though; his handwriting was too precise, the letters as a rule well-formed for a man who had written quickly, and well-spaced between the lines, the lower loops never entangling themselves with the upper loops of the line below. It was an educated, reflective, intelligent hand that didn’t go with the cheap suit he was found in. What the hell had the man been doing?

Listening to the tapes, the DS discovers that Staniland was a regular at the Agincourt, a rough pub in Lewisham, where he drank heavily, despite the mocking and casual violence from a local criminal whom he nicknamed the Laughing Cavalier. Our man goes to investigate:

Inside, the place was built entirely of concrete, which nevertheless bore signs of attention from various demented customers. The bar was narrow, and behind it stood an unbelievably disagreeable-looking stout man, who had to be the governor. It was only a quarter past eleven in the morning; however, as I came in, he was helping himself to a triple vodka, obviously not his first in the day.

His queries paint a picture of a talented man, ruined by a marriage that didn’t work out and the subsequent flight of his wife and daughter. Staniland was even a scriptwriter at the BBC once, although the booze tempered his success:

“Well, he drank,” said Viner, “And I mean he really drank. The Beeb’s idea of drinking in the office is an occasional pale ale – Charles’s was a bottle of Scotch a day. Or two. Mind, he never passed out; his eyes just used to turn inward. I remember he was sick in his handkerchief once, but he was never incoherent, even. The bottle would be on his desk out in the open, and if a passing bigwig didn’t like it – well, Charles had rather a sharp tongue.”

The tapes refer to an antagonistic and abusive relationship with a woman called Barbara whom the DS is soon convinced holds the answer as to why Stanliland was killed. While his search for her combs the sleazy nightclubs of South London, he continues to listen to the tapes, finally discovering Staniland’s fatal raison d’être:

Most people live with their eyes shut, but I mean to die with mine open. We all instinctively try to make death less difficult for ourselves. Personally, I’ve got two ways. First, I drink. I drink for oblivion, and then a fall of some kind of blow, once I’m beyond thinking and feeling. That’s how I’d die, with my eyes shut. My other way is to rationalize my experience.

Looking into his own past, the DS is reminded of an artist whose wife has gone insane:

“She looks at naked existence all the time, you know, the way we only do with a bad hangover.”

The Detective is now far too involved; identifying with Staniland to the point that he even moves in with the woman who brought him down, an action that could cost him his own life...

Brutal and unflinching in its description of evil, He Died With His Eyes Shut is also an acutely sharp and uncomfortable insight into the human condition. With echoes of Hamilton’s Hangover Square, the Factory series are a piece of cult London fiction that I know I’ll be returning to.


  1. I enjoyed Raymonds bio a number of years ago ,have read a couple of his other books ,serpents tail are doing a great job rereleasing his book ,found your blog via henrys blog ,all the best stu

  2. He comes across as quite an interesting character, and I’m very glad that his books are being reissued. It seems that he’s getting some posthumous recognition at last, better late than never I suppose...

    Glad you followed the link from Henry’s World of Booze. I must have another look at his Reading and Drinking post, he mentioned some fascinating sounding books.