Derek Raymond didn't look like a crime writer. He looked like a crime victim. In the photo on the back cover of the American edition of He Died With His Eyes Open, the skeletal Raymond looks like a member of an obscure 1960s British Invasion band who has spent the intervening decades in Treblinka. In other pictures from his brief late 1980s-early 1990s heyday, he looks like a guy who's been through hell and more than half enjoyed the ride.
This novel, the first of four that established Raymond as the Godfather of British neo-noir (the Brit James Ellroy, let's say, or the anti-P.D. James) is a fast, effective, compact and at times surprisingly complex police thriller. It touches all the usual tiresome generic bases (voyeuristic corpse description, a cast of increasingly creepy suspects, a touch of racism, misogyny, the odd reactionary aside, an ending in which the criminals are punished and the cop-narrator lives on to narrate another day...), but the book's real interest lies in those passages where it becomes more than just a good police procedural, those pages and paragraphs and even single sentences that seem to chafe at the restrictions of the thriller form. The novel's murder victim is a failed writer whose life somewhat parallels Raymond's life until his 1980s success, and the anger, bitterness and self-loathing transcribed from cassettes the victim recorded before his death (excerpts from the transcripts make up a significant percentage of the text) sound at times very much like Robin Cook (Derek Raymond's real name) writing nakedly behind the 'protection' of an essentially transparent mask. In a sense, there are really two books here, and they are at war with each other. Embedded within and often threatening to break out of the thriller form is a literary novel of lyrical beauty and intense self-examination. It includes a gorgeous account of laboring in a French vineyard and a harrowing description of the slaughter of a pig that serve to emphasize by contrast the numbing aesthetic and emotional poverty of the thriller narrative and its grey, urban world--and by implication to indict the genre as a corrupted product of that world. The victim's transcribed voice functions as not only the narrator's but also the author's bad conscience, especially when it speaks a line like this: "Anyone who conceives of writing as an agreeable stroll towards a middle-class life will never write anything but crap."
To be sure, this novel's thriller narrative contains a good deal of crap, but there are also a few metaphors that verge on the surreal (an alcoholic publican's eyes are "red and blue, like dartboards"; a hyperactive man's head "wobbled like an oyster on the end of a drunkard's fork") and a few lines of tough-guy narration that are like synecdoches for the entire genre: "Not only was he a murderer, but he looked like one, which as a policeman I thought was pretty stupid of him." There's a little of this, but not enough. Raymond/Cook, like the contemporary American novelist Jack O'Connell, writes like someone who has straightjacketed his considerable talent into a pre-existing mold. The tension created by this situation can be exciting and interesting, but the cost to the reader (For who can count the cost to the writer?) is that we are left wondering what the book might have been if it had truly exploded the form, if it had consistently broken the first commandment of genre fiction: Thou shalt do nothing to interfere with the reader's masturbatory pleasure. At bottom, Raymond's thriller narrative is still a cheap thrills machine, Mickey Spillane with an East End accent. It encourages the reader to identify with the antihero, fight and fuck alongside him, and close the book with a warm and comfy postcoital glow. The other narrative has the potential to deflate this fantasy balloon (erection?), but there's not enough of it to succeed. In the end, this book is the same old song transposed to a darker key.