A tough old cookie: Robin Cook shook the crust off his uppers and opted for the underside he depicts in his south London thrillers. Now he's told the real story

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WHEN I met Robin Cook, alias crime writer Derek Raymond, at lunchtime in The Coach and Horses, he was already at the bottom of a pint of beer, and was chatting up a pretty woman. Down here in Soho, his twin appetites are legendary. One recent interviewer stayed longer in his company than intended and finally slid silently under the table; Cook, just hitting his stride, had to scrape him up and get him into a cab. When I first met him four years ago, he confided that he had spent the best part of his life in pubs. 'I fear it is beginning to show on my face,' he said. Well, he said it.

The face is indeed cadaverous, and his teeth are medieval. But, at 61, at least he is as skinny as a polo mallet, without the jowls and busted veins of the dedicated piss-artist. Food seems a minor inconvenience in his life. We are toying with some Dim Sum in a Chinese restaurant, and he is chain-smoking Gauloises, not just between the courses, but during them. It's a pleasure to be with someone so politically incorrect.

He is wearing a T-shirt advertising the Black Lizard thriller imprint. And it is topped off with his familiar beret, like an old 45rpm record that fell on his head and melted. Altogether he looks like a death mask on stilts. Yet the women still keep coming, crashing through his upper decks like kamikaze pilots. He has been six times married, for lengths of time varying between 63 days and nine years 'with a bit of a break'. His habit of referring to them as 'No 2' or 'No 4' is endearing; as are his courtship habits - 'Stole that one from the poet Bernard Gutteridge. Shouldn't have done it really.'

The gory details are now available, along with a load of theory about what he calls the 'black novel' - which seems to mean just about any writing he approves of - in his autobiography The Hidden Files.

Lately he has been a bit worried about the state of his liver. A Parisian doctor warned him that if he continued drinking on his usual heroic scale, he would only have five years to live. 'Had to pay him 90 quid for that news,' says Cook. 'If I'd paid him 150 quid, he probably would have given me two years.' He adds with some pride that the doctor had just returned from a stint with Medecins Sans Frontieres in Afganistan, and had seen nothing on the battlefield as bad as Cook's liver. 'So I laid off the drink for six months,' he says, 'No problem. It's just so bloody boring.' He sticks to beer and wine these days, although a mutual friend claims to have seen him sink 12 pints at a recent sitting.

He quit Eton in 1947, aged 16, with a bitter hatred of the place and the class from which he came. 'Only man who hated it as much as me was Orwell,' he says. 'Absolutely vile place. Hotbed of vice.' But in a post- war Britain stuck in its pre-war habits, revolt and classlessness were not quite the thing. After a stint as a corporal latrine-digger in a tank regiment, Cook went abroad and took to smuggling: paintings to Amsterdam, fast motors into Spain from Gibraltar, tape recorders wherever.

When he returned to the King's Road in the Sixties, he found a milieu much more to his liking. Donning his Chelsea boots, sheepskin coat and shades, he became a front man for various 'property companies' run by one Charlie Da Silva, a man not unknown to the Krays. 'I had a plausible manner,' he says.

The Cardinal and the Corpse, a forthcoming film for Channel 4 by Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, about the search for a possibly non-existent rare book, features Cook, as himself, back in the company of such Sixties 'morries' (Cookspeak for 'characters') as Emmanuel Litvinoff and Tony Lambrianou, a 'driver' for the Krays. 'Used to know Litvinoff's half-brother David quite well. He managed to kill himself. Which was probably just before he would have been murdered.'

Inquiries as to the exact nature of David Litvinoff's offence are hedged around with euphemism. 'Well, as the French say: 'He lost his pedals in a serious manner.' Great bicycling nation, the French.' History records that the Krays grew tired of Litvinoff, strung him up by his ankles and cut his throat so badly he needed 170 stitches. What they failed to achieve he did for himself. in a house later bought by Bob Geldof.

Mere mention of Lambrianou, celebrated author of Inside the Firm, still turns Cook pale. 'They finally sent him down for transporting a corpse for the Krays. Couldn't pin anything else on him.' It was Jack the Hat, and Lambrianou did life. He's out now, and still peddling tales of Reggie's great sense of humour.

This life on the edge of things, including a stint as a pornographer in St Anne's Court, finds its way into an extraordinary sequence of half a dozen near-autobiographical novels of bad manners which deserve better than the 'cult' label usually attached to them. The mods had Colin MacInnes; the posh tearaways of 'swinging London' got Robin Cook.

The Crust on Its Uppers, Private Parts and Public Places, Bombe Surprise and State of Denmark offer a leery anatomisation of that rag-trade con, the Sixties, and the criminal behaviour at the heart of that louche decade. The Crust on its Uppers is as inventive in its use of underworld argot as anything by Anthony Burgess; it was recommended by Eric Partridge as the best source of slang in the last 25 years. The critics used to consign this form of writing to an 'underclass' of literature, but Cook gives a better account of his era than any other novelist. You won't find his pornographers, Fascists, tarts, chancers and rent boys in the likes of Murdoch or Drabble. He saw through the squalid con of that time and pinned it down with misanthropic relish.

He left the country in the Seventies for reasons a shade obscure, although not hard to guess at. When a man keeps the sort of company he kept, then there comes a point when he must look after his 'health'. He settled in a tower in Aveyron, to the north of Montpellier, and began working as a vineyard labourer. This, at a time of life when most men are sinking into a sedentary middle age.

'It did keep me very fit,' says Cook, indicating the skeletal thinness of his body. 'But one day someone in the village said to me: 'You are going to end your days as a labourer.' I was 48, and I tell you, that comment hit me where I lived.'

So he began writing again, about a nameless south London detective, a highly moral man with a vicious temper and a strong sense of justice, who pursues all the old murder cases from the 'dead files' which no other copper can be bothered with. For the thrillers, Cook adopted the nom de plume Derek Raymond, because he doesn't want to be confused with the other Robin Cook, best-selling author of Coma and other airport dross, 'nor with the bloody shadow minister for health, come to that'.

The books cover the streets of Lewisham and Acton, but are not exactly realistic. The true world they inhabit is a place of stark moral contrasts that stinks of decay and cheap death. The Devil's Home on Leave is about a hitman who has been thrown out of the army in Belfast, and is running around London boiling his victims in a big vat.

The series is a success in France, and they have filmed both He Died with His Eyes Open, with Michel Serrault and Charlotte Rampling, and The Devil's Home on Leave, seen on French television. Cook regrets that they weren't set in their proper south London milieu, although this may be put to rights shortly by a three-part series, on its way from Kenith Trodd at the BBC. Also in the future is a projected film by Claude Chabrol of How the Dead Live, with Philippe Noiret pencilled in as the policeman.

It is unlikely that anyone will manage to film his last book, I Was Dora Suarez, a chronically disturbed meditation on the psychology of a serial killer. I am not the only reader who did not have the stomach to finish the book's catalogue of torture, cannibalism and degradation.

'Can't blame you, my dear fellow,' says Cook very kindly. 'It cost me a lot to write that book. But I refused to pretty it up. I am sick to death of a certain kind of genteel British thriller writer for whom murder is just a hobby. It ain't. It's a barbarous, horrible business.' One wonders how close to the act he has ever come. 'You couldn't write about it properly unless you have been violently tempted to kill someone in the past. Which I have.' So what stopped him? 'Just some strong moral sense, which says to me: Mustn't do that, Cookey, that's wrong.'

He writes at night, and confesses to having been at it all last night until seven this morning, polishing his next one, Dead Man Upright. It is now four in the afternoon and he is still going strong. By five we are still discussing the people he has known around Soho: Henrietta Moraes, Francis Bacon, Daniel Farson, Johnny Minton, all the usual suspects. Also the little-known novelist Veronica Hull, author of The Monkey Puzzle, a roman a clef which caused a scandal in the Fifties by lifting the lid on Freddie Ayer's activities with his female students.

'Trouble was, she had a brain like a bandsaw. Lived with her for two years. I was one of her few survivors.'

By six, it is time to part; he back to the Coach and Horses, me in search of an iron lung. 'I know I am a set of complete contradictions. And if I hadn't been a writer I would have gone mad from it all. But I still look around, and at myself, and I think: What am I doing here? Shan't stay long.'

'The Hidden Files' is published next week by Little, Brown, at pounds 15.99.

(Photograph omitted)