The Pequod Review:
He Died with His Eyes Open is an intense 1980s British noir, and one of the best books in Derek Raymond’s acclaimed Factory series. The story is narrated by a nameless detective-sergeant in London’s Department of Unexplained Deaths (the so-called A14 department). The detective works on the cases that Scotland Yard has no real incentive to solve, which suits his lone wolf style:
The fact that A14 is by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service only goes to show that, to my way of thinking, it should have been created years ago. Trendy lefties in and out of politics or just on the edges don’t like us – but somebody has to do the job, they won’t. The uniformed people don’t like us; nor does the Criminal Investigation Department, nor does the Special Intelligence Branch. We work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did. We have the lowest budget, we’re last in line for allocations, and promotion is so slow that most of us never get past the rank of sergeant. We can solve a murder with as much skill as any of the Bowmans, whatever our rank, pay and pension – the difference is in our attitude.
His most recent case is the particularly violent murder of Charles Staniland, a fifty-one-year-old alcoholic with few known friends or family. (“There was nothing about Staniland in the paper. Staniland wasn’t news.”) But the detective is shocked by what he finds:
I’ve seen plenty of violent deaths, but never anything worse than this one. His wounds were multiple, but not random. They weren’t consistent with a hit-and-run or even a casual robbery (who would trouble to rob him, though?). No, he had been systematically beaten by one, or more likely two practitioners who knew exactly how to do it. Specialists, you might almost say. Villians, you might almost say.
His investigation leads him across the city’s seediest neighborhoods, a search that is aided by the discovery of audio cassette tapes in which Staniland describes his troubled life. It’s a little too convenient of a plot device, but it functions nicely to build out Staniland's character — as well as show how similar he and the detective are in their isolation, alcoholism and failed relationships:
Staniland’s question was the question I had once read on a country gravestone erected to a child of six: “Since I was so early done for, I wonder what I was begun for.” 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…This 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 felt I had to uphold. I had committed my own sins against it, out of transient weakness. But I hadn’t deliberately murdered it for its pitiful membrane of a little borrowed money, its short-lived protective shell–and that was why, as I drank some more beer…I knew I had to nail the killers.
All of this makes for a superb (and highly original) detective story — and I will reveal no more of the plot — but Derek Raymond adds to it with harrowing descriptions of London’s down-and-out:
What maddened me sometimes with my work at A14 was that I could not get any justice for these people until they were dead. These university drop-outs, these mad barefoot beauties that had been turned away from home who staggered down the streets with plastic bags filled with old newspapers against the cold – wrongo’s, drugo’s, folk of every age, color, and past, they all had that despair in common that made them gabble out their raging dreams in any shelter they could find. They screamed at each other in Battersea, moaned over their empty cider bottles in Vauxhall, not having the loot for a night in Rowton House, their faces the color of rotten stucco under the glare of the white lights at Waterloo Bridge and wreathed in the diesel fumes of the forty-ton fruit trucks that pounded up from Kent to Nine Elms all night long. In the days you could see them, white, faded and stained after such nights in winter; I saw them at the morning round-up at the Factory, waiting in various moods to be taken for sentencing at Great Marlboro Street – the thin, crazy faces, strange noses, eyes, hands rendered noble by madness and hunger, the rusty punctures in their arms, their whiplash tongues, and then, later, the flat, sullen grief of their meaningless statements to the magistrate.
Barbara was hatched in fury like a wasp, and she’ll die in fury. Her promiscuity is aggression; she uses sex to obliterate a man—this is her revenge on existence.
This is a gritty, dark and unsettling crime novel, and a modern noir masterpiece.