Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez

I have known for some time that the works of Derek Raymond (real name Robert William Arthur Cook) are difficult to come by, but only now, after completing the fourth book in his celebrated Factory quintet, have I perhaps understood why. Apparently reading I Was Dora Suarez caused Raymond’s publisher, Dan Franklin, to vomit at his desk, prompting the publishing house, Secker & Warburg, to terminate their arrangement with Raymond, requiring him to find a new (stronger-stomached) publishing house. Given that the prior books already involved gruesome and depraved murders, one might fairly ask what it was about Suarez that crossed a line.

Unlike all of the prior novels in the series, I Was Dora Suarez begins from the perspective of the killer, an axe-wielding sexual deviant out to murder his former lover, Dora Suarez, whom he met at an underground sex-trafficking club. He manages to enter her apartment silently, but it is difficult to murder silently with an axe, and so Dora’s landlord and friend, the elderly pensioner Betty Carstairs, whom he kills by throwing her head-first into a grandfather clock. Raymond offers an aside here, interrupting what for any other writer would be an imperative scene, to describe Betty’s post-mortem fate:

Well, now she had been killed in her own clock, so that was that, and that was the squalid and miserable end of Betty Carstairs. She was to pass later, after the autopsy, through the diesel flames of a London cemetery in a recuperable coffin, a graven angel passing through a moment of fire, at a price arranged on the cheap by her great-nephew Valerian who knew a few people, and who, having been through the flat with a mate of his directly we had finished, took such pickings from it as he could down to Chelsea in two of her suitcases and got pissed on the proceedings.

Only Derek Raymond would find the murder of a harmless elderly woman insufficiently cynical, and therefore feel the need to describe the meanness of her cheap funeral or the use to which her worldly goods were put after her death. The killer’s grizzly work complete, he surveys his scene:

The scent of the girl’s blood had lost its bouquet, its spicy, fresh fragrance, and all of her which through fullness, he had not been able to enjoy of her, lay congealing on the floor, her blood now smelling sharp and acid, like stale win. Her sprawling limbs admitted only one image. They were what they could only be – joints of chilling, upset meat – and her bloodstained grin, the fixed, yet slack absence of her dark eyes were the worst of all sentences, the one that condemned a killer by looking past him.

This double-homicide is the first opportunity for Raymond to upset a publisher’s stomach, but he will milk this same murder for two more: first, when our nameless protagonist, the anti-hero policeman of the Factory series, arrives on the scene to survey the killer’s work, and later in the morgue, when the autopsy is conducted. Contrast the above description of the murder scene – at once clinical and sexual – with what our policeman sees through his eyes:

I got down on my knees beside Dora’s body and at once felt close to her, but also separated from her by a distance that I had no means to describe. She was very slender, and wore the bloody remains of a new dress. It was pink and white, with dark flowers on it; its skirt just covered her knees. At first, as I looked at her legs lying folded under her, it seemed to me that her body from her thighs down to her feet was swollen, too heavy in relation to the rest of her – that her dark head, slight shoulders were too elegant for them – but then I realised that that was how, propped up against the bed, she had drained – the law of gravity had filled her like that with her blood, like a sausage with meat, and that was how death had left her.

It was a long time before I could make myself look closely into her ruined face with the terrible hacks, gashes, bruising and broken bone on its bad side. I wouldn’t do it until I was alone, and yet to be alone with her was really worse to begin with, because I was afraid that I might get so far out of touch by looking at her that I might never get back; I was frightened to look at her as I would be to drown.

Both descriptions are gruesome, for the scene itself is bloody, but in the latter we perceive exactly what was sorely lacking in the first: the humanity of the observer. Even in death she remains human to him, pitiable, and despite the fact that his very profession requires him to be as clinical and nonchalant in assessing the murder as the killer was in causing it, he can scarcely look her in the face.

Stepping back from the corpse and surveying the whole apartment, now speckled with the blood of two innocent, butchered women, he recalls a verse from the war poet Wilfred Owen: “Oh what made fatuous sunbeams toil / To break earth’s sleep at all?” – prompting another trademark Raymond aside: “It struck me that rooms like these, situations like these, were the front lines of the eighties – but this flat seemed to me to be worse than what I usually got, because the very people that the dead armies had fought to protect had been murdered in their turn, and this time there had been no one to protect them.” For Raymond, the eighties in England are debased and debasing, and for his nameless protagonist, Dora Suarez is the decade’s archetypal victim, a young and beautiful woman, innocent and blameless, whose life is commodified in the most despicable and heinous of ways. The novel’s most gruesome passage – which I will spare you, reader, out of my own kindness – comes not from the murder scene, but from the subsequent autopsy, where it is revealed that Dora was already marked for death, that being prostituted had left her with a particularly aggressive strain of AIDS, and the description of the damage the virus wrecked on her body far surpasses any brutality visited upon her by her killer.

Raymond later described I Was Dora Suarez as his masterpiece, but one that came at a steep price:

Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once. […] I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up — if you do come up. It’s like working in a mine; you hope that hands you can’t see know what they’re doing and will pull you through. I know I wondered half-way through Suarez if I would get through — I mean, if my reason would get through. For the trouble with an experience like Suarez is that you become what you’re writing, passing like Alice through the language into the situation.

His own protagonist expresses an almost-identical sentiment: “By examining other people’s lives and deaths I am half consciously showing myself how to approach my own. Strip horror; face it naked. Don’t hide or run, and then the good will come, even if it has to go through hell to find you.” This is the mission of any authentic writer: to report honestly from the frontlines of human experience, however hideous the sights, out of the sincere conviction that an ugly truth is always preferable to a comforting falsehood. By that metric, Derek Raymond is a very good writer indeed.