The detective sergeant has no name. He works for a superior known only as The Voice. He works out of a place called The Factory, a department called Unexplained Deaths.
This nameless investigator is protagonist of Derek Raymond’s Factory series of crime novels, which I’ve just started reading — predictably enough, in the middle of the sequence. How The Dead Live is sensational and I immediately wanted to film it. One problem — I wanted to film it with Stanley (PERFORMANCE) Meadows in 1965, twenty years before it was written, two years before I was born.
But never mind, I’ll happily film it now if anybody will let me. The French have filmed two Raymonds, but the language of the books is so integral they must be losing masses of good stuff. How the Dead Lives alternates between madly uneven existential philosophy and pulp posturing in its narration, and shamelessly dated (even for the mid-eighties) cockney patter and noir bullshit in its dialogue. I found it utterly irresistible. You have to imagine dialogue as excessive as Clifford Odets’ in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS of Abraham Polonsky’s in FORCE OF EVIL, only wrapped round a clenched London fist of slangy argot.
“‘I don’t think you quite understand,” I said. ‘I’ll put it this way. The more you don’t tell me right answers to what I want to know, the more I start to suspect — and as another police officer I’d better remind you straight off, you be careful you don’t pot the wrong colour on this one, darling. Because if you do you could lose the whole of this frame fast and find yourself on your ear with a pension worth five times fuck all. Now your best course is to start telling me what I want to know immediately, otherwise I’ll dig it up by myself and God help you, are you reading me? It’s London that wants the answer to this Mrs Mardy business fast, and I mean very fast. I’ve got a firework up my arsehole from my folk, and that means I’m going to have to put one up yours, it’s called self-help, alright?'”
Storywise, How the Dead Live starts like Red Harvest and ends like Poe — maybe The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, for instance. It’s smeared over with death throughout, although there’s only really one fatality within the novel’s time-frame. Raymond is obsessed with the Big Sleep. His prose reeks of decay. His hero is a ragged scarecrow of a man, the world he moves through is slipping into putrescence. At the centre of the book is a vast manor house collapsing with damp, its contents rotting away.
“Now I saw by the final light what I had only sensed in the dark the time before. Now appeared the murderous abandon of the park — shrubs that had once been planted in orderly groups shrank like wet beggars; the flailed and thrashed, unpruned, under diseased elms staggering in the gale. I stopped the car, got out and looked up at the ruin of the house, high, wet and hideous.
“As I stood there I suddenly felt afraid — not of what confronted me but in a general way. I thought and felt that the secret of existence was perhaps to get old with beauty, ironically, coming closer and closer to you as you aged; innocence, everything that you had rejected or ignored as a young man, entering you like music all the time until in the end there was no more time. Then much of what had seemed so hard would be over, after too much work in cities, after patrolling too many streets for too long, after studying too many faces with the sly, fixed look of the dead.”
It’s purple and overripe and totally sincere, like Poe or Cornell Woolrich. The best bits are incredibly sharp, the worst bits are still kind of brilliant. By the end I had settled on Bill Nighy to play the detective sergeant in my dream movie, although there’s a brilliant actor called Danny Webb who’s more the right age and could also be great. He has the same mad, icy eyes as the late great Nigel Green.
“‘Considering who you are and what you do,’ he said, ‘I think you’re all right.’
‘None of us are ever all right,’ I said. ‘We’re all just waiting for the death express.'”