I first heard of Derek Raymond's frankly fantastic He Died With His Eyes Open at last year's Boston Book Festival, when I stopped by Melville House's booth and their marketing rep pressed it into my hands, saying it was one of the darkest- and one of the best- things he'd ever read. I've been on a bit of crime (fiction) spree this summer and read it in a couple of days while on vacation back in July. Wow.
The book is great, gripping and poetic crime fiction. The book starts with the brutal murder of a middle aged alcoholic in a seedy part of London; the police almost can't be bothered to investigate, thinking what's the point, it's probably just a case of one lowlife killing another. The book is set in Thatcher-era Britain, and the poor are garbage to anyone above their particular station. So, who cares. But the head Detective Sergeant of the Department of Unexplained Deaths cares, because this man, Charles Staniland, was a human being whose life had value and dignity, and he sets himself to the task of finding his killer. As he investigates, he finds that the victim was a talented man though failed in life and love, who had unfortunately hooked up with wrong femme fatale. But then, is there ever a right one?
He finds Staniland's voluminous taped diaries and learns that Staniland was an educated man with an artist's eye and an aesthete's soul:
Nobody who mattered like his sculpture [Staniland says of an artist he admires]; when I went over to his council studio I understood why. His figures reminded me of Ingres crossed with early Henry Moore; they were extraordinarily graceful, and far too honest to mean anything whatever to current trendy taste. There was quality in them that no artist nowadays can seize anymore; they expressed virtues--toughness, idealism, determination-- that went out of style with a vanished Britain that I barely remembered. I asked him why, with his talent, he didn't progress to a more modern attitude, but he said it was no use; he was still struggling to represent the essence of what he had experienced in the thirties. 'What I am always trying to capture,' he explained, 'is the light, the vision inside a man, and the conviction which that light lends his action, his whole body...'"Sounds like what Raymond is trying to do here, too. He Died With His Eyes Open is the first of five crime novels set in the "Factory," the Department of Unexplained Deaths, and for all its bleakness, violence and death, there is something touching and optimistic about the unnamed detective's utter belief in the worth of every human being, no matter how marginalized or alienated from society. And the book is totally addictive reading. More than that though, it's a beautifully written literary novel that just happens to be about a cruel murder. It's violent and dark, for sure, but Raymond writes with heart and from a place of real kindness. I loved this combination of disturbing subject matter and generous point of view. I can't wait to read more from Derek Raymond!
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Melville House.