DEREK RAYMOND likes to get his hands dirty. Dismembered corpses litter his fiction like the detritus on the Thames at low tide. Raymond focuses in visceral close-up on the kind of backstreet, tawdry deaths - 'the red meat of crime' - that fill the pages of London's local press. A Spanish prostitute with Aids is murdered; a father shoots his family after being made redundant; a man jumps to his death from a tower block, decapitating himself in the process.
Raymond is big in France, but beyond a cult readership his pulpish policiers have failed to catch fire here. Following the critical success of grim and gritty television series such as Cracker and Between the Lines, a BBC adaptation of his books, to be shown later this year, may change all that.
Raymond's detective works in a department called 'Unexplained Deaths', out of a police station in Soho (the Factory). He's a bit of a renegade: he has little interest in promotion or self-advancement, and bends the rules to fit his own moral dictum, the belief that 'the ultimate point of my job' is an individual's right to live as he or she chooses. His colleagues are mostly bent or violent, his bosses incompetent. Significantly, the most reliable agents of law in Dead Man Upright are no longer badge-bearing cops. One has been dismissed for alcohol abuse; another was paralysed after intercepting an armed robbery.
Casting his protagonist from the Chandler mould gives Raymond free rein with quickfire vernacular and individualistic rebellion, which he exploits to the full. The difference lies in Raymond's evident interest in the psychopathology of crime, a thoroughly modern engagement with the why and wherefore of brutality, which pushes the investigative process itself into the margins. (His careless plotting must infuriate students of the forensically correct school of crime fiction.) He lends his own curiosity about the banality of evil a philosophical flourish with a detective who has himself been touched by it and who bears its scars, in the form of grief for his daughter, who was murdered by his wife.
'How do you think thieves, murderers and suicides spend their time?' the detective muses. 'They spend it daydreaming on burst mattresses in a squat littered with old syringes, walkmen burned out on a trip, dust blowing in on the draught under the door, Fuck the Filth scrawled in the grime on the window, and other men turning over groaning in bursts of bad sleep on sheets stained with their own semen.'
Dead Man Upright opens with an invitation to step inside the mind of a serial killer revisiting the memory of his latest murder. It makes painful reading. Ronald Jidney is drawn to well-heeled, lonely older women, through whom he exerts his violent will to power. In a few vivid, nightmarish pages, Raymond conveys the sense that for Jidney, murder is a kind of theatrical catharsis.
Cut to a meeting between the detective and his ex-cop friend, whose suspicions have been aroused by the sudden disappearances of a succession of Jidney's (aka Henry Cross) women friends. But our detective has a problem: no body, no evidence of crime beyond a horrific painting in Jidney's flat of a woman confronting her death. In the best tradition of the gumshoe with a hunch, he reads the signs and resolves to investigate.
What follows is a hotch-potch of thriller and textbook. The men at the Factory are being educated in the profiling techniques pioneered by the FBI's Behavioural Science Unit, which should be familiar to anyone who's read or seen Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs. What made Harris's novel so chilling was the way Harris manipulated our sympathies, in the dramatic pairing of FBI agent Clarice Starling and the ur-psychopath, Hannibal Lecter, with a battle of wits (and wit), instinct and intelligence.
Raymond, however, seems to have been carried away by the textbooks he's read. Early on, he treats us to an unexpurgated lecture by a Home Office psychologist, and when Jidney is arrested, half-way through the novel, he gives us a fly-on-the-wall view of a series of interviews with the killer as he is encouraged to reveal his motives and modus operandi. After each session, the psychologist summarises the meaning of what has been said, pointing out what is real and what delusion, and emphasising just how valuable this kind of information can be to police.
That's as may be. But it doesn't make good fiction. Raymond abandons all attempt to animate evil (a shame, because in the opening pages, he demonstrates a considerable talent for it), giving us a course of instruction instead. In Jidney he presents an identikit serial murderer for whom a cocktail of abusive childhood, delusions of grandeur, fragmented personality and frustrated desire feed the compulsion to kill and kill again. If you've read the same books Raymond has, it seems a pretty accurate rendition (there are bits of Peter Sutcliffe, Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Nilsen and so on); but lacking a fictional integrity of its own, Dead Man Upright oozes pretension. Less red meat than a dish half-cooked.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies