“Don’t you see, the words sometimes take the place of tears?”
What if a true villain, a thoroughly evil psychopath, a man who already possessed a heart of darkness, who already scared evil men witless, then went mad? Fully and irredeemably insane. What depths of depravity, what inhumane crimes would he be capable of?
In I Was Dora Suarez, the fourth in Derek Raymond’s Factory Novels, we find out.
Be warned. This novel is not for the squeamish. This novel made its publisher, who had already published the first three Factory Novels, vomit over his desk. Much to the glee of its author, who himself was a bit of a mad man.
As with the other Factory Novels, Dora Suarez stars the unnamed, detective sergeant of London Metropolitan Police’s, Department of Unexplained Deaths – The Factory, otherwise known as A14. Unexplained Deaths handles the “rough trade.” The investigation of the ugly murders of the average citizen and the dispossessed as opposed to The Department of Serious Crimes – Scotland Yard – who get the glamorous investigations.
The novel opens with the brutal murder of Dora Suarez, a seemingly gentle young girl, and the kindly 86-year-old widow, Betty Carstairs, who had taken her in. The reader gets a peek inside the mind of the killer and of his methods in this first chapter. “His eyes …bore the stare of someone entirely lost on the earth, and he was the most hideous thing that you prayed you might never see.”
The detective sergeant is on suspension from the police for striking a superior officer. Insubordination comes easy to him, as he isn’t a career ladder-climber. He is called back on the job, all is forgiven, to handle this case as the police are short-handed.
As the sergeant investigates, he immediately empathizes with the victim, and is deeply affected by the heinous details of the murder, Dora was repeatedly axed, one arm cut off before death, as she pleaded with her murderer. As he investigates further it’s discovered that the murderer ejaculated on Dora, and defecated on the scene.
He also literally threw Betty through a clock. The sergeant also discovers a diary of sorts that, as he reads, makes him believe that Dora may have known her killer. The diary also reveals her innate gentleness in real life and that she was already dying and he develops an obsessive fondness and sadness for the dead woman. There’s a sadness to Dora’s life, the way that she has been repeatedly beaten down, used by life and the people in it.
During the autopsy, the extent of Dora’s sickness is revealed to be advanced AIDS, but how she contacted it is not immediately apparent. It also becomes clear that the killer ate pieces of Dora post mortem.
Meanwhile, barely a mile away, another murder is being investigated by Stevenson, one of the sergeant’s few friends on the police. Felix Roatta has had his head blown nearly off, and the timing of the two sets of murders, as well as the nearness of the scenes, perks both their interest.
Roatta was a notorious gangster and part owner of the Parallel Club. A photograph is discovered taken at the club on Roatta’s birthday with Dora singing on stage, and a man that the other criminal elements that haunt the club are reluctant to talk about.
As the club’s Greek doorman, and other criminal elements that had ownership interests in the club are detained and questioned, and as the degenerate offerings of the clubs “exclusive” upstairs rooms are revealed, the pure ugliness and subversion of decency make the sergeant and Stevenson more than determined to discover the identity and whereabouts of the murderer who even scares these hardened criminals.
This is where I usually talk about the author’s craft. How well he uses literary devices, develops the characters and sense of place. Dialog and narration and all the other component parts of a good story. In the case of Dora Suarez, that would be superficial at best. Akin to criticizing the paints in Michelangelo’s palette or discussing the merits of the water that Monet used to soak his paper.
Raymond simply defines British Noir and in Dora Suarez created one of the most important pieces of crime fiction of the past 50 years. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, Raymond has taken a cheap, shoddy and utterly lost kind of writing, and made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about. Paul Oliver, at Melville House Publishing, told me when he provided this review copy, that Raymond “Wrote like John Donne if Donne had been taught how to write by Jim Thompson.”
As an entry in the “hardboiled” genre, if bounced on the floor it would chip concrete. In the “noir” field it is to “black novels” what black holes are to darkness.
As with most Factory Novels, it is only superficially a police procedural. And only nominally a mystery. Raymond’s and his protagonists’ concern throughout the series was always more about the victim and what brought them to their fate.
To be sure, the dialog is as elegant as Raymond Chandler’s, and the basic storyline as good or even better at uncovering the fault lines of society than Hammett at his best.
The sergeant’s dialog is hard, violent, and insolent and never approaches the realm of civil discourse whether he is talking to the politically motivated higher-ups, the lowly bobbies on the beat who wish to play at being a cop, or to the dregs of criminal society, whether they be witnesses or suspects.
In contrast to his violent exterior is an almost psychotically sacred level of concern for the victim. In the words of the author, he “describes men and women whom circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed. It deals,” the writer continues, “with the question of turning a small, frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle — the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfillable, and where defeat is certain.”
First published in 1990, I Was Dora Suarez was the fourth of five Factory Novels published and considered the masterwork of Raymond’s career. Rereleased in September by Melville International Crime, it is available singly or in a set consisting of the first four novels, with the fifth offered free when it is published in January.
No one seriously interested crime fiction as literature, noir written as taut, ugly and teetering on the edge of sanity, can possibly pass this one by.