Derek Raymond’s The Devil’s Home On Leave

I had to search out the second novel in Derek Raymond’s Factory series, for though the whole pentalogy was reissued at the start of the last decade, it has once again fallen out of print. That should not be taken as a judgment against the quality of the series, however; it is likely a result of Raymond’s work being somewhat sui generis. He is too psychological, too literary, too disdainful of the worn-out conventions of crime fiction to please devotees of that genre, and too dark and gritty and pessimistic to please literary audiences. Nonetheless, in the corner of the writing world he staked out for himself, he did excellent, compelling work, and deserves to be remembered for it.

The Devil’s Home On Leave is the second in the so-called “Factory” series, named after the London police station from which our nameless narrator works, where criminals are processed and worked over like products. It opens with a move I have never seen in crime fiction, advancing to the very moment at which the guilty suspect is first confronted by the policeman:

I knocked at a second-floor flat in a dreary house, one of two hundred in a dreary Catford street.

After a while I heard steps the other side of the door.


“Who’s that?” said a man’s voice. “Who wants him?”

“I do,” I said. “Open up. Police.”

We are instantly hooked, but Raymond isn’t just out to entice us: he is setting the pattern for the entire novel, which quickly becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between our narrator-detective and McGruder, a ruthless, psychotic ex-soldier with a history of extreme violence. Here is how the narrator describes him in one of their encounters:

He stared at me without any expression at all, and I knew it was no use. He would always come out in pieces, in fury and despair, his way of describing a sense of loss. He could feel for a second, or a minute, if you reached out far enough to him; but he was too far gone, with violence behind him, violence in front and beside him. Like a broken piano, he could only make discords.

Everyone who meets this man, or had the misfortune of meeting him in the past, eventually comes to see this side of him as well. The book’s central murder, in fact, speaks to his nature perfectly: a man is murdered by a “humane killer,” a single-shot device used to kill cattle, then dismembered, at which point his flesh is boiled and distributed equally into five plastic bags, left to be discovered and reported to police. It is graphic, surely, but not gratuitous, intended to show off McGruder’s methodicalness as well as his violence, and the reader is far more likely to squirm uncomfortably during the many one-on-one encounters McGruder and our narrator have, late at night, far from the safety of the police department, when we witness him struggle to restrain his own violent nature.

This book is also the first time in the series where our unnamed narrator comes into focus. His pessimism and sleeplessness featured prominently in the first book, but the second reveals the cause:

There used to be dignity in life; I used to see it all around me when I was young. But now it’s gone. People no longer care about each other the way they used to – not the way my old man used to tell me life was when he worked in the Fire Service during the war and the bombing. Then, people who didn’t even know each other would go down into the flattened buildings after a raid and shovel to get at the people buried down there as if the victims were their brothers. Even after the war there was still some trust left; it ran on nearly into the sixties. But now it’s all Sorry, Squire, don’t want to know.

Raymond published the Factory novels during the 1980s, a notoriously difficult time in British social and political life, and even today the Blitz is recalled as a kind of high point in the nation’s communal spirit, so we might be tempted to treat the above as objective commentary on the state of British society, but it is immediately followed up by the revelation that, at some point in the not-so-distant past, our narrator’s wife, in a fit of madness, threw their young daughter under a bus, killing her instantly (“It was the afternoon of Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1979, that Edie pushed our little girl under the bus […]”). He still sees her in his dreams – when he manages to fall asleep – but her loss has irrevocably shattered his life, leaving him only with the job to keep him going.

I would give my life to have my little girl back again, but all I can do in the anticlimax that life is without her is to do what I believe to be right in the face of evil. So old-fashioned! But I have only dreams and memories of my daughter to fall back on now – dreams where I see her like a bird, flying free and happy in the face of my trouble.

In the above passage, we almost catch Raymond being a little too pat with his characterization, but he immediately reels himself in with that “so old-fashioned!” and leaves us with that beautiful simile, effectively evoking not only the memory of the detective’s daughter but the present reality of his suffering.

Derek Raymond is a genuinely talented writer, operating far above the standards of the crime genre. He gives us fully evoked characters, an oppressive atmosphere, and a dark and biting humour. The least we might do, in return, is keep his books in circulation.