What constitutes justice, for the Detective? Is it any more than the relief of his personal obsession with the fate of the victims?
What constitutes justice when the acts committed by the killer come from the bottom of a well of psychological disturbance so deep that the killer himself only very vaguely and occasionally becomes aware of an external ‘reality’ in which he acts, let alone other people on whom he inflicts suffering?
How is the reader expected to think of justice in the kind of world that Raymond presents, a world so cruel and inevitable and so completely lacking in redemption?
“Where’s the justice in it? That’s what I want to know.”
It is as if Raymond is doing everything he can to make a world that cannot admit any heroism, or any good, and yet he finds himself unable to resist the satisfaction of revenge, of punishment, and the elevation of his protagonist to the status of a justified avenger, “an arrow against assassins”.
We feel pity and fear, and these emotions are partially dispelled by the movement of the story and the retributive vengeance that the Detective metes out to the killer.
But the real power of the book is to uncover the psychology of the killer and in this it is so successful that the operation of whatever passes for justice can only be a thin bandage over the gaping wound that our knowledge of murder has opened up.
Once we go inside the killer’s mind, the psychopathic mind, we can’t believe that any death or any prosecution can solve the problems it presents. Raymond reveals to us how oblique murder is to good and evil. That it no longer fits into a scheme of sin and grace and redemption, or one of hamartia and peripeteia and catharsis. Nor even a Dionysian/Appollonian pattern of strength and will.
The mind is diseased, it is warped, but it may never have been straight. The erotic fixation of the killer has become death and desecration of the body. Thus his continual identification of decapitation and murder with marriage – his ‘ownership’ of the victim/bride. And this connection has made a mockery of taboo and law and ethics. The animal must feed itself with blood.
Of course there is a proximate cause for the crimes – the humiliation of sexual inadequacy and impotence. But the killer’s reaction to this humiliation, his misconstruction of a girl’s tenderness, is more than a simple feeling of shame. His rage is infinite. It detonates under the slightest provocation. He does not know why. He does not even think that this response is unusual or wrong. He doesn’t see that it is a problem. For him, normality and reality are utterly subjective, in the fleeting present when he is aware but still without self-consciousness.
For him, redemption comes in the form of murder. Murder, committed neatly, perfectly, is the relief of his rage. That is the only struggle he understands. He is so lost to this compunction that it does not make sense to view his actions or interpret them in a moral continuum. They only make sense in terms of a terribly damaged psychological relationship with the world.
But the detective, and the reader, still seeks a moral solution to the problem. What is perceived as terrible injustice, what is felt as unfair suffering, demands that we are given one. The blood cries from the ground. But that scream only disappears into the void like all of our cries for justice.
It is the unsatisfactory nature of this solution, of the investigation and its denouement, that is the most consequential theme of the novel. Because this is how it comes closest to describing the reality of these murders. They don’t have solutions. They don’t have motives that we can understand or that we can respond to. As the detective puts it:
“Pain is inflicted by those who have no idea what it means…”
(Incidentally, he doesn’t mean by this that they don’t understand what pain is – they know that their victims suffer, and enjoy that suffering – but the killer does not understand what pain means in this case because the victim’s pain is, for him, something else. It is ecstatic/orgasmic).
It is tempting to try to read the Factory Novels as some kind of allegory for the brutality and suffering of the Thatcher era, the dehumanisation and commodification of human beings and human relationships that can be ascribed to her policies and her disdain for ‘society’; and there are moments when one feels the author almost bringing to the surface a kind of piecemeal social criticism:
“…don’t the 1980s feel strange to you?” Dora remarks, in a suspiciously incongruous aside, to Betty Carstairs.
But I think that any straightforward attempt to connect the crimes described here with the political and social environment in which they take place would be misleading. Many features of the world Raymond describes seem ahistorical or out of date (as Will Self has pointed out). The landscape and weather of London is accurate enough, though very little about the physical fabric of the city in the book alludes to or evokes the 1980s specifically. Instead it seems to belong more readily in a sort of disorientating melange of the 1940s, 1960s and 1970s. Nostalgia for the war years is pervasive, and there is more than a hint of Patrick Hamilton in the world of miserable, chilly little flats and cheap furnishings that Raymond’s characters inhabit.
But this lack of historical solidity also suits the main purpose of the book, which is to construct an epic, almost metaphysical (and solitary) quest for justice in a world that has none. And while justice itself will always elude the Detective, the author and the reader, Raymond attempts at least to give us a sense of fulfilment, or closure, by replacing justice with revenge.
The lack of specific historical context in other words helps to make the moral tone of the story seem more universal. A frontal critique of Thatcherism would spoil that project and lead the author in a very different direction. You can impute a lot of the grimness of Raymond’s London to the policies of the government, but you can never find much evidence that the author intends the book as a political assault on that particular administration.
The real subject of literature is rarely politics, because politics is too small for literature. Life, death, love, good and evil. Those are the things that literature is made of. In Derek Raymond’s case, there is very little love, and very little life, and hardly any good. There is a lot of brutal, terrifying death. And there is a kind of evil, but it is an evil that does not come in the convenient, cartoonish form in which it can be isolated, fought and beaten. It comes in a mysterious, complex, intangible form that does not leave us anyone to blame or anything to learn.
And that is why it feels so realistic and so terrifying.