“Good evening to you,” he boomed heartily. “My wife tells me you’ve come about my brother Charles. Well? What’s be been up to this time?”
“Well he’s gone and died,” I said.
A body is found on a West London roadside. It’s been battered and smashed in such a way that suggests he’s the victim of a twisted, embittered and unstable killer. The case is handed to The Factory and its Department of Unexplained Deaths. It’s taken on by our protagonist, one of the few at the Factory who finds the work suits him. There are no boundaries to his investigation and, because it gets under his skin, he takes on the case in a way that begins to overtake his own life as he becomes bound up with the thoughts of his victim.
The body at the side of the road belonged to Charles Staniland. It turns out he was a man of wealthy descent who squandered everything along the way as his compulsions, obsessions and open generosity pulled him down. His last residence is a place of utter squalor. In it, our DS finds a collection of tape recordings. As he listens to them and learns about the man, his urge to find the killer grows as he becomes increasingly sympathetic to Staniland’s poetic philosophising, and more deeply embedded in the murky world of his psyche.
The journey towards solving the case is fascinating. The police work bears little relation to any typical investigation. Our sergeant decides that the best course of action is to follow the victim’s course and, though aware of the dangers and pitfalls this might bring, he goes ahead with it anyway. His approach is amazing, his journey fascinating, the conclusion as unpredictable as it is inevitable.
Raymond’s talent as a writer is clearly apparent. Not only is he able to bring in a hard-boiled style where characters are brilliantly framed, particularly in the dialogue, but he is also able to inhabit Staniland’s fragmented mind and capture the wonder of his voice in a way that makes the victim’s foray as a literary author utterly plausible.
I want to mention one thing while I’m here. The references to London’s ethnic diversity, a key aspect of the city’s life and character can be a little jarring. As I came across them, I needed to take pauses to try and work out how I felt about it. In the end, I concluded that the book reflects attitudes of the time in which it is set and the comments were always funnelled through characters, adding to the authenticity and grit of the book. If you have other opinions, I’d be more than happy to hear them.
I moved to London at around the time the book was published. It certainly didn’t have the polished feel about it that it carries at its centre today. I guess it’s good to reflect on progress as, because it happens in steps, can easily be missed while we’re busy living our lives. It’s also good to note, as Raymond’s protagonist suggests, that not all changes to the essence of a city are for the better.
Perhaps to finish, I’ll leave with a comment about the sergeant’s complexity:
“A true communist is no scrounger,” he [sculptor friend, Ransome] said. I had just decided to go to police school then, and I remember that when I told him so he looked at me for a time and remarked: “Yes, but perhaps you could have been an artist too.”
I dared not tell him, though I told him most things, that I didn’t have the courage for that.”