Tuesday, May 22, 2018

I dare you to come out of these unscathed: The Factory series, by Derek Raymond

"The black novel ... describes men and women whose circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed.  It deals 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." 
            -- Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files, as quoted by James Sallis in the introduction to He Died With His Eyes Open (x).

note:  My editions, with the exception of Dead Man Upright are all from Serpent's Tail (bought eons ago), but Melville House has them all as part of their International Crime Series.

This is going to be a long post since it's going to be about five books. There are no spoilers at all, beyond what's already on the cover blurbs.  And since I don't really write reviews, I'll point you to people who know what they're doing and who are good at it:

Derek Raymond's Factory Novels, by Jeff VanderMeer
Doors Closing Slowly: Derek Raymond's Factory Novels, by Patrick Millikin
The Visionary Detective, by Joyce Carol Oates

Ah, to have the talents of these writers, but such is not my lot, so on with my own take on these dark, unflinchingly raw, heartbreaking and excellent novels.

These five books are collectively referred to as the Factory series, based on the fact that their main character works out of a police station on Poland Street nicknamed "The Factory."  This detective sergeant has no name (becoming "the nameless one" in my head),  and works in A14, Unexplained Deaths.  It is "by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service," and the nameless one explains in He Died With His Open he and his colleagues there work on
"obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don't matter and who never did."
At Unexplained Deaths, "no murder is casual, no murder is unimportant," and our detective sergeant prefers to work on his own without interference from the higher ups.  He refuses promotion, and in The Devil's Home on Leave, the point is addressed from the detective's end as to why, after one of his superiors tells him that if he remains a sergeant, he'll "always get the shitty end of the stick."  His answer:  "Maybe ...,  but I think that's the end where the truth is."  He knows he is not "inspector material, or Branch material, but just Unexplained Deaths material," and he is completely okay with it.  (29; 123)  The people at A14 "didn't see death" like others did, and certainly not in any kind of "civilised prepared way:
"We saw it without the church, without the priest, without the funeral parlour; no hymns, just the dead body stiffening, sometimes in one, sometimes in more than one piece; we saw death suddenly, when we had a hangover, called out to the raw dank place where death was when we weren't in the mood, like a cabbie picking up a client obliterated by the dark on an empty road." (Dead Man Upright, 24). 

Reading through these books we also come to realize that Raymond has given us an ongoing commentary about contemporary British society and politics.  As Paul Oliver reveals over at the Mobylives blog, 
"Raymond was a writer of great complexity, who wrote with a nearly unmanning combination of fury and compassion as he chronicled the austerity of Margaret Thatcher's England." 
His work here in the Factory series, as whoever writes the back-cover blurbs for Melville House says, is  an "unrelenting investigation into the black soul of Thatcher's England," but really, it's not difficult to see in these novels that Thatcher's England has become pretty much soulless; it's not just the buildings that are in decay and left to rot, but also the souls of some of its inhabitants.

That "fury and compassion" is alive and well here, transferred into the form of Raymond's detective, whose  work at A14 often takes him into the "sad, narrow streets" in which live
 "the desperate last fugitives of a beaten, abandoned army, their dignity, rights and occupations gone (or never known), their hope gone, tomorrow gone."
He often encounters those "made invisible in their misery by the frozen night," for whom he could not get any justice "until they were dead" (How The Dead Live, 25-26); and as the series progresses, we learn why justice is so important to him and what it is that motivates him to solve these cases that are sent his way. 

In the first book of this series, He Died With His Eyes Open, the nameless one takes on the case of a man found dead in "a ghastly lonely area," laying there with his eyes open, severely battered; it looks like the work of two people.  The dead man has been identified as Charles Staniland, 51, and the sergeant's superior from Serious Crimes, Bowman, calls it a "derelict death," but when the detective begins his investigation, he realizes pretty early on that the "cheap suit" on the body belied someone "educated, reflective, intelligent."   After he listens to a number of cassettes and reads papers left behind by the dead man,  our nameless detective realizes that he had "started to think, dream, almost be Staniland by proxy."  In short, he has established a connection with this man who, while living, had suffered a tragedy leaving his life to take a turn for the worse, sending him as well as his  hopes and dreams into a downward spiral.  And now he wants justice:
"Though Staniland had died at the age of fifty-one, he still had the innocence of a child of six. The naive courage, too -- the desire to understand everything, whatever the cost...The fragile sweetness at the core of people -- if we allowed that to be kicked, smashed and splintered, then we had no society at all of the kind I had to uphold... I knew I had to nail the killers...Not just know them. Nail them."

 It is the detective's ability to establish this connection between his victims and himself that is at the heart of these five novels; it is also this particular quality which makes these books so emotionally taxing to the reader, since as the detective uncovers what it is that has brought these people to where they are now,  we simultaneously learn more about what it is about him that has brought this man to do what he does.   We also come to understand just how much the past continues to haunt the present, another idea that runs throughout this series.

The Devil's Home on Leave takes a bit of a different path, since at the beginning of his investigation of a most brutal, grisly crime, the killer's MO narrows down the identity of the suspect.  What's left in this case is for the detective to gather proof against the perpetrator, which is going to be challenging since this man has no conscience, no fear, and nothing to lose.   And while I didn't particularly care for the direction that this story ultimately took,  we learn much more about the detective's heartbreaking past and how it is that he has come to "understand murder" so well.

By the time I'd finished book three,  How the Dead Live, and book four, I Was Dora Suarez,  I was sort of wishing I hadn't read all four in a row.  I felt much like I did the time I binge watched the TV version of David Peace's Red Riding Quartet, after which I was like completely gutted. (Do NOT make that mistake; trust me on this one).    There is the deepest sort of pain to be found in both of these books; different, but pain all the same, and there's so much here that it takes its toll.   In How the Dead Live our detective is sent to look into the case of a missing woman, a doctor's wife whose absence had gone unreported.  His efforts are stymied as he  runs into a wall of silence from just about everyone in the small village of Thornhill, but when he finally learns the truth, it's his compassion that takes over in an extremely sad and tragic situation.  Meanwhile, his uncomprehending and unwanted superiors, sensing the headlines to be made over the case,  decide to bulldoze their way in, and the nameless one goes to great lengths to see the right sort of justice through, even at the potential cost to his career.

 While looking for reviews about these books, I came across an article in  The Australian mentioning that  crime novelist Ian Rankin once called Raymond's  I Was Dora Suarez "`English crime fiction's equivalent to Edvard Munch's The Scream."   I'd say that's about right.  He also notes in that article that Raymond's books are not only novels, "but also reports from a front line of casual cruelty in a world lacking empathy," again, spot on, and while that idea is apparent in each and every book in this series, it is especially true here.  Not only does the title character, Dora Suarez, live in a "world lacking empathy," she also inhabits a world where  the sickest, lowest, and meanest people lack any sort of conscience.

 Once  that book was over, not only had I had enough of  Derek Raymond for the moment, but I had to sit and regroup for two days before I could move on to the last book, the first night with sizeable portions of bourbon in hand.   James Sallis, in his intro to He Died With His Eyes Open, referred to I Was Dora Suarez as a book that sends electric shocks through your system (see below), which it did -- it is so powerful in fact, that I don't want to say too much about it.    It is not only tragic because of the horrid death of Dora Suarez and of  her older housemate but reading further into it, it's also a case that will drive the nameless detective further than ever in his quest for justice.   And how sad is it really, when a lonely, haunted man finds the woman of his dreams only after she's dead?   There's much much more indeed, but let's leave it there.  Of all of the books in this series, this one is best experienced cold, with not much known about it ahead of time.  What I will say is that in my opinion, in I Was Dora Suarez we find everything Raymond has written about in the previous novels fully realized in a way they hadn't been before to this point, and perhaps that's why I found it to be the most powerful of all of the Factory books.

And finally we come to the end, with Dead Man Upright, which is a bit of a departure from the rest of the series in some ways, but in others, not really.  For just one thing, there isn't a specific crime that brings the nameless one into the case, but rather a potential crime.  In a pub and drinking beer with a friend, our detective  hears from his old police buddy about the strange behavior of an older man, a certain Henry Cross,  in his building, whose dealings with different women have captured the interest of the detective's friend.  As he puts it, "there's something that smells dead off about it."  Once the nameless one assures his friend he'll look into it, he searches the older man's apartment, and finds some pretty chilling signs that his friend's intuition was right, and that the man most likely dangerous and needs to be off the streets.   But what he doesn't find is a body or any sort of evidence at all that points to a specific crime -- all he can do is warn the potential victim while he tries to catch what he believes to be a serial killer before it's too late.   But she's having none of it, since for her, he's her only chance at happiness in an otherwise dreary life.  And while I won't give away the rest, Dead Man Upright delves into one of the darkest places there can be -- directly into the mind of a psychopath. It is my least favorite of the five, but still very, very much worth the read.

As James Sallis says in his introduction to He Died With His Eyes Open,
"Five or six times in a life you come across a book that sends electric shocks skittering and scorching through the whole of you and radically alters the way in which you perceive the world." (vii)
 After finishing the entire Factory series  I can certainly attest to the "electric shocks skittering and scorching" that not only went through the whole of me, but also sort of imprinted themselves into my brain in their wake,  probably to leave a mark forever as to how I approach and engage with crime writing.   They are, as the back cover blurb from He Died With His Eyes Open notes (again quoting Sallis), "literature written from the edge of human experience," and they indeed seem to exceed the "limits of the crime novel and of literature itself."   The fact that the main character is a detective working for the police in London might make anyone believe that Raymond's novels are yet just another series of police procedurals, but that is absolutely not the case and reading them as such is just plain folly.    These books  are among the darkest of the dark in the realm of crime fiction,  and are not for everyone, and for those who do read them, beware the toll they take on your wellbeing for the duration.

I loved these books and there will never be anything like them again, I'm sure.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

*femme fatale indeed! The Sorceress of the Strand and Other Stories, by L.T. Meade (ed.) Janis Dawson

Broadview Press, 2016
Sorceress of the Strand serialized 1902-1903 in The Strand
311 pp


Over the last year I've read a number of older books featuring early examples of women in the detecting biz,  but no books that have focused primarily on women as villains. Irish writer L.T. Meade and her various writing partners  changed all that with their serialized crime stories, which feature some of the most diabolical women masterminds of evil who let nothing stand in their way of their evil goals.    Meade's stories ran in The Strand, and as you can from see from taking a peek at this website, her stories often found themselves alongside the Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Sadly, while  Holmes and Watson continue to entertain, LT Meade has gone the way of several women writers, fading into obscurity.  She is largely remembered for her novels about school girls but is little feted in the world of crime/mystery fiction, which is a bloody shame, if you ask me.  Luckily I recently discovered her work in this book, fell in love with her evil-genius female criminals, and bought two more books by Meade in anticipation of hours of entertainment.

Before we even get to The Sorceress of the Strand, in this particular edition from Broadview Press,  we are  treated to stories from three other works by Meade. It's kind of like the amuse bouche before the main meal, if you will, and it certainly whet my appetite for more.   The first of these is "The Seventh Step," from The Diary of a Doctor (second series) published in The Strand in January, 1895.  Her co-author on this one was listed as Dr. Clifford Halifax, who actually narrates these tales, but whose real-world identity was actually Dr. Edgar Beaumont.  In this story, Dr. Halifax's adventure begins on a ship sailing to St. Petersburg, where his compassion and curiosity lands him squarely in the midst of a most sinister plot involving a female mastermind of evil. Of this story, I'll say no more, except that for me, it had a sort of proto-, old style pulp feel to it as the story unraveled.  The second story, "At The Edge of a Crater," finds Meade writing with  collaborator Robert Eustace, in what will eventually become (after being serialized in The Strand in 1898) the novel The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings.  

1899, from LW Currey
Norman Head, who relates this story had, while in Italy some ten years earlier, "fallen victim to the wiles and fascinations of a beautiful Italian," a "scientist of no mean attainments," and because of her, became a member of the "Brotherhood of Seven Kings."  The woman here is a certain Madame Koluchy, who is, as the good people at LW Currey tell us,
"A Moriarty-like master criminal who is incredibly beautiful, intelligent and charming, and who commits extortion, blackmail and murder." 
While she is feted in London as a "marvellous woman" who "has succeeded where the medical profession gave little hope," Norman knows the real Madame Koluchy as having "bewitched London with her impostures and quackery."   And now he finds himself face to face with her again as he must stop a diabolical plot that has been set into motion, one that will take him from the salons of London to Mt. Vesuvius.   Finally, story number three is "A Little Smoke," from The Heart of a Mystery (1901), which finds a certain Rupert Phenays set against his deadly but beautiful enemy Francesca Delacourt, who is the ringleader of a "most dreadful gang of spies."  Sadly, Phenays enjoys no peace; he is on the run from Agents of the French Secret Service who believe him to be in possession of a "great secret" that he doesn't actually have.  All I'll say about this one is that dog lovers should beware.

my photo, from "A Little Smoke," p. 112

Entering into The Sorceress of the Strand itself,  we come across the title character,  Madame Sara, who reads like an early example of  the femme fatale, one whose fame and  respectability grants her entry into the homes of some of the finest families in Britain. She is, as her arch-nemesis Dixon Druce puts it, "a very emphatic somebody,"  and has wedged her way into the lives of the upper classes to the point where "London Society is at her feet."  Madame Sara is also what I'd term an evil genius, who has a background in science, can wear many hats (including that of dentist), and labels herself "a professional beautifier" who "claims the privilege of restoring youth to those who consult her."   She is an exotic, mysterious figure who looks as though she's about twenty-five, but "confesses that she is much older than she appears."  She is also, despite her appeal,  one of the most nefarious and shady female evildoers on the streets of London, something her victims would deny until, of course, they learn the horrible truth about Madame Sara. Unfortunately for some of these women and their families, the light bulb doesn't quite go off until it's much too late. Druce teams up with a doctor/scientist friend Vandeleur, and together they try to thwart Madame Sara's crimes; they aren't exactly detectives but they are on scene as the mysteries behind Madame Sara's actions unravel, trying to thwart her evil intentions before the worst can happen.

Sure, you can find a number of Meade's stories online but you'd be missing out on Janis Dawson's incredible work in this Broadview edition, including her discussion of the real-life counterpart for Madame Sara, a Madame Rachel who "specialized in swindling money, jewellery, (sic) and family heirlooms from her clients."  We also learn that at least one of her victims accused her of "magnetic influence" and "witchcraft," and that she ultimately died in 1880 while in prison. She also touches on Meade's criminal masterminds and "Fin-de-siecle Anxieties" (which are writ large in each and every story in this book) and then offers several appendices, beginning with "Contemporary Interviews and Reviews."  I'm one of those strange people who loves to get what she can out of a book by knowing more about its social/historical framework as well as the life of the author, so for me, this was a perfect introduction to Meade and to her mystery/crime writing.

Having no idea at all what to expect when I opened this book, by the end of it I became a confirmed LT Meade fan and plan to get my hands on and read every single crime story she ever wrote.  And anyone at all who is interested in Late Victorian/Early Edwardian crime writing, especially stories written by women, should read her work as well.   Beyond her historical significance in the genre, I have to say that some of her stories often read like rollicking adventure yarns, perfect for reading on a rainy day, cup of tea in hand while curled up in a blanket.  Seriously -- she's just plain fun.

Friday, May 4, 2018

*The Clue, by Carolyn Wells

The Best Books Publishing, 2018
originally published 1909
151 pp


The Clue is the first of a long lineup of books to feature Detective Fleming Stone.  In this particular story, Stone comes in towards the end and triumphs in solving the case, a feat that neither the police detective nor an attorney/amateur detective has managed to pull off before his arrival.  But more on that a bit later.

Wells caught my attention as I was scoping out which vintage crime novels to read this year. For one thing, I'd never heard of her and for another, this book, The Clue, appeared as part of the Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective, Crime, and Mystery Fiction.   Wells (1862-1942) was incredibly prolific, the author of "170 books, including detective stories, children's books, humour, parody and poetry," according to the blog Female Poets of the First World War.   The list of her crime/mystery/detective novels is huge, as shown here at stopyourekillingme.com., with the Fleming Stone series outnumbering all of her other mystery novels; her detective stories on the whole constituted the largest part of her work.

 Regarding her Fleming Stone novels, (all quotations below taken from the Ramble House blog)  Howard Haycraft wrote in 1941 that
"The surprising fact, perhaps, is not that some of the stories scarcely rise to the mark, but that have not perceptibly diminished in popularity.  Carolyn Wells is in many ways a remarkable woman ... She would presumably be the last to maintain that Fleming Stone belongs in the company of the immortals of detective literature.  The fact that his adventures have given harmless pleasure to many thousands of readers she undoubtedly considers full and sufficient reward."
 Other writers haven't been so kind; Dashiell Hammett said of her work that it was
"conscientiously in accordance with the formula as adopted as standard by the International Detective Story Writers' Convention at Geneva in 1904. One would expect that by now she would have learned to do the trick expertly. She hasn't."
and in 1982, Bill Pronzini wrote that Fleming Stone was
"as unreal an investigator as any of his dime novel predecessors.  In not one of his ... cases does he come alive as a human being, or as anything more than a two-dimensional silhouette with a penchant for pulling murderers out of hats on the flimsiest of clues and evidence."

original cover from Project Gutenberg Australia

While I won't go deep into plot here, the story begins on the eve of the wedding of a young heiress. She is found dead and it seems like her death will go down as a case of suicide, that is, until one of the doctors present discovers evidence that brings in the coroner and an inquest.  The suspects range from the servants to family to friends,  with the fiancé at the top of the list of suspects, having entered the house with his own key; he is also the one who discovered the body and alerted the household.     His best man, a lawyer who fancies himself as a sort of amateur detective, decides to do some digging on his own, but eventually admits defeat.  It is at this juncture, towards the last few pages of the novel, that the bridegroom suggests  bringing  in Fleming Stone, a detective who had done "wonderful work in celebrated cases all over the country."  He is described as having "a most attractive personality," a man "nearly fifty years old, with graying hair and a kindly responsive face."  And really, that is pretty much all we learn about this man except that he is good at taking the most minuscule of clues and solving a crime that seems otherwise impossible.

from Project Gutenberg Australia 

The Clue is another novel that I'm glad to have read because it was written by a woman whose work seems to have faded into obscurity.  I have to say that it would likely be more at home in the library of a cozy reader -- the romance keeps it light in tone as does the amateur detecting going on. And even though all is put right once again in this house, the ending is a bit over-the-top melodramatic, actually causing an eyeroll on my part.   But it does have its moments, for example, in an interchange between two characters who make fun of detective stories; ironically  that discussion ends up with talk of a "Mr. Smarty-Cat Detective," who "deduces the whole story." I say ironically because that is precisely what happens here, with the arrival of Fleming Stone.  He is like the living deus ex machina who comes in, takes a look around and solves the entire case in a short time.  I'd try another one just to see if this is his pattern, just out of pure interest.   I suppose, like many mystery novels, the fun is in the getting there, complete with a host of suspects with motive, a few red herrings, and a crime that borders on the impossible.