Obituary: Robin Cook
Tuesday 02 August 1994
THE NOVELS written by Robin Cook under the pseudonym Derek Raymond stand alone in contemporary crime fiction.
He is not recognisably linked to the main British school, the cosy 'country house' tradition. More surprisingly, since his main protagonist is a detective sergeant, neither does he have anything in common with the police procedural tradition. Cook did not merely bend the rules of crime writing, he ignored them entirely. If he compares to any other crime writer, it is perhaps Jim Thompson, with whom he shares an unsettling ability to evoke the mind set of a psychopath. Otherwise he relates stylistically perhaps only to Patrick Hamilton, author of Hangover Square; but he never had Hamilton's limited faith in Marxism. Instead, Cook was ultimately a tortured moralist, obsessed with the twin questions: why do people suffer, and why does evil exist?
Robin Cook was born in London in 1931, the eldest son of a textile magnate. He spent his early years at the family's London house, off Baker Street, tormenting a series of nannies. At the outbreak of the Second World War the family retreated to the countryside, to a house near their Kentish castle. In 1944 Cook went to Eton, from which august institution he removed himself at the age of 17. A period of National Service followed, in which Cook once again distinguished himself, as one of the few Old Etonians to come out of the army with the exalted rank of corporal (latrines).
The army years instilled a thoroughgoing penchant for downward mobility. A brief stint working for the family business (selling lingerie in a department store in Neath, South Wales) convinced him it was time to see the world, and he spent most of the Fifties abroad. In Paris he lived in the 'Beat Hotel' alongside William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, dancing with the likes of Juliette Greco in left-bank boites. In New York he lived on the Lower East Side with the junkies and the jazz musicians, dating girls from Harlem and heiresses from New England (even - briefly - marrying one of the latter). And in Spain he encountered poverty beyond anything he had known and spent time in jail for sounding off about Franco in his local bar.
He returned to London in 1960, making it to the French Pub in Soho with sixpence left in his pocket. There he found that the town had blown wide open in his absence. The same day he was fronting a dodgy property company for an associate of the Krays and, in no time, was living 'the life of morrie' with an assortment of Chelsea-based upper-crust bad hats. An ingenious scam, involving the apparent theft of a Rubens or two, saw Cook undergo interrogation by the Dutch police force and gave him the impetus to forgo a life of actual crime in favour of a life of writing about it.
The Crust on its Uppers (1962) was an immediate succes de scandale on publication. Scandal however doesn't pay the rent for long, and with a second wife, Eugene, and first child, Sebastian, to support, the Sixties saw Cook combining novel-writing with stints as a Soho pornographer or running gambling parties. Much of the Sixties was also spent in Italy; catching the spirit of the age, the Tuscan village in which he settled decided to declare itself an independent anarchist state, and appointed Cook, naturally enough, its foreign minister; less probably, he also became minister of finance.
By the end of 1970, however, Cook had a (third) wife, Rose, a stepson, Nicholas, an infant daughter, Zoe, a large house in Holland Park, and books that still weren't selling. He worked as a taxi-driver, learning an inordinate amount about London low life but still not earning the requisite fortune. Something had to give and in the end almost everything did. The marriage broke up, the house went and he stopped writing books. He relocated to France, bought a derelict 15th-century fortified house in the south-west and began to work as a labourer. The family rejoined him for a while, and with them to feed writing fiction remained out of the question.
By 1979 the marriage had broken up for good and Cook was nearing 50, lean as whipcord, but looking at a life eked out as a day labourer and regular in the local bar tabac. In a panic he wrote a potboiler that was published only in France, returned to London for another couple of years, got married (to his fourth wife, Fiona) and divorced again, and worked as a minicab-driver on the night shift. Here he amassed the material that would emerge as perhaps the darkest, most completely noir of modern crime novels, He Died With His Eyes Open (1984).
In France, the book made Cook's name. It was filmed, with Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. Its successor, The Devil's Home On Leave (1985), was also filmed. Awards were won and Cook, in his trademark black jeans, black leather jacket and black beret, became a star act on the literary circuit, particularly following the 1990 publication of what many consider his best work: the tortured, redemptive tale of a serial killer, I Was Dora Suarez.
In Britain things were slower. Only when the novels came into paperback in the late Eighties did the Cook cult begin to gather momentum. A return to Britain in 1991, following the amicable breakup of his fifth marriage to Agnes, saw him belatedly receive the acclaim he had long deserved. The publication of his literary memoir The Hidden Files (1992) prompted an avalanche of interviews with this last Bohemian. Earlier this year he played a sell-out gig at the South Bank in the company of indie pop stars Gallon Drunk, with whom he recorded a remarkable musical interpretation of I Was Dora Suarez. Posthumous projects include a last novel, Not Till the Red Fog Rises, to be published in the autumn, a BBC drama series based on the crime novels and to be produced by Kenith Trodd, plus a third French film adaptation.
Robin Cook's last illness came not as surprise but as a sadness to all those who knew him. Derek Raymond the novelist will be remembered as a writer riven by a need to understand the darkness in human nature. But what those of us who knew him will remember is a man of boundless optimism, courage and humour, a man whose extraordinary enthusiasm for life could transform the mood of any room he entered.
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