BOOKS in which the writer takes it upon himself to explain the mysteries of his craft are not always edifying. For every Graham Greene cutting out a path through densely felt experience to the fictional core, there are half a dozen memorialists dutifully marshalling the commonplaces of the literary life.

Although at first glance Derek Raymond looks set to fall into this second category - 'Writing is what I understand by living,' he writes at one point, which seems an exceptionally silly thing to say - his autobiography quickly redeems itself by a wholly individual and quirky honesty. He might not have been a particularly pleasant man, you feel, but at least he does not waste his own and the reader's time by trying to pretend otherwise.

In fact, The Hidden Files (the reference is to the secret data in a computer) is an odd book altogether, a rambling series of meditations and reflections: vignettes from childhood, portraits of forgotten Fifties literary characters, scenes from a turbulent emotional life, glimpses of the author's current existence in his French fastness at Le Bourg. Its unifying theme, to which Raymond inevitably returns, is a vigorous defence of a series of novels that the average British reader will probably not have heard of, and would probably not much like if he had.

Raymond's literary career has been erratic. He began writing in the Sixties under his baptismal name of Robin Cook - tense, gamey novels about the London underworld. Returning to the literary world after a long interlude, he discovered the existence of a more celebrated Robin Cook, the author of such titles as Coma and Sphinx, and was advised to select a pseudonym. As Derek Raymond - the surname was a tribute to an old drinking companion - he is the author of the 'Factory' novels, four of the nastiest pieces of crime fiction ever written, culminating in I Was Dora Suarez (1990), an unflinching study of a serial killer run to ground by a vengeful detective. All four books were clearly written at great personal cost.

Orwell once remarked that Jack London could foresee fascism because he had a fascist streak in himself. In much the same way, Raymond's ability to penetrate violent and criminal minds reflects his own temperament. He admits that the effort expended in writing I Was Dora Suarez, in which he consciously tried to place himself in the position of the killer, Spavento, put him under intense mental strain - which looks like a typical shaft of authorial portentousness until you actually read Suarez and discover what a grim piece of work it is.

The brief account of Raymond's life sketched out here supports these inferences. He was born into genteel languor. 'I don't know how on earth I'm going to manage, Pam, if this war goes on,' his grandmother observed in 1940. 'I shall only have nine in the house' - the number referred to servants. And he treated his parents with a contempt that was largely reciprocated. 'You will undoubtedly end up in jail and may the law pursue its course', were apparently his mother's last written words to him.

Later, as managing director of a crooked property company run by East End gangsters, Raymond only narrowly evaded this fate - his interest in police procedure no doubt stems from the 17-hour interrogation he underwent in the early Sixties.

The Crust On Its Uppers (Serpent's Tail, pounds 7.99), now reprinted 30 years after its first publication, is presumably a fairly accurate account of the life Raymond was living at that time - a switchback ride of illegal gambling parties, fast bucks and conversations eked out with impenetrable rhyming slang, moving off into fantasy only in the Communist-sponsored counterfeit money scam that is the novel's centrepiece.

The 60-year-old Raymond who inveighs against the 'cosy crime' favoured by the English middle classes seems little different from the 30 year-old warning that 'that is the red meat of crime, so read it and then curl up in your feather bed and forget it'. Yet his strongest characteristic, both in the novels and in these clumsy but engrossing memoirs, is a compassion for victims and underdogs. He reserves his contempt for more deserving targets - the people who try to sweep real horrors under the carpet, the remnants of the English class system, book reviewers.

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