It was March 1993. My friends James Johnston and Terry Edwards of the band Gallon Drunk had made a record with noir novelist Derek Raymond.
I was a music journalist then, and pitched the story to Melody Maker. The book they adapted was I Was Dora Suarez. It changed my life forever.
As a child, I was obsessed by Sherlock Holmes and his London of shadows and fog. But no writer of crime fiction had haunted me the same way since. Not until I opened the pages of Raymond’s masterpiece.
Here was an author who wrote of a London on the cusp of the Eighties/Nineties, a city “scoured with vile psychic weather” as tangible as the miasmas of the Victorian past.
His unnamed Detective Sergeant worked a grim adjunct of the Met called A14, Unexplained Deaths, tending to the unloved, unwanted victims of a frightening, fracturing city that evinced Margaret Thatcher’s curse, “There is no such thing as society”.
Dora Suarez was a woman killed precisely for being female, by a psychopath who breaks into her rooms in the opening pages of the book and dispatches Dora and her elderly landlady with such brutality that, the legend goes, one editor lost the contents of his stomach reading it.
It wasn’t the violence that affected me. It was the compassion. The DS goes after the killer like an avenging angel, reclaiming Dora’s soul back from the dirt she has been left under. Never before had I read a crime novel in which the victim – not the cunning killer, nor the clever detective – was the central figure.
When I met Raymond, he said that writing the book had been an 18-month séance. She was a face in a book of crime scene photographs. He called her Dora Suarez and brought her out of anonymity with a passion that, he admitted, almost sent him mad. In doing so, he changed the course of British noir.
I only knew Raymond for one year, but he left me a lifetime of magic. The fact my own books exist is down to him: his best friend in Britain became my editor and his best friend in France publishes my work there.
I continue to meet people who have been touched by him. And when I sit down to my own séances for murdered women, I have come to know what he went through writing Dora and why he had to do it. Through every hour of writing, I feel a grievous angel by my side.
Cathi Unsworth’s new novel is ‘Without The Moon’ (Serpent’s Tail, £11.99)
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