Monday, March 17, 2008

Review of How the Dead Live

Some books are gone when you close the back cover. Even if you enjoyed them, they just don’t make a long term impression. Then there are books that refuse to go away weeks after you read the last page. Derek Raymond’s How The Dead Live (Serpent’s Tail, 2007) is one of the latter. The third in Raymond’s Factory series featuring a nameless London detective who has born more tragedy in his personal life than any non-fictional human could bear, it has been long out of print, and should not be confused with Will Self’s novel of the same name, with which is shares nothing in terms of subject or tone. Self, who wrote an introduction for the new edition of Raymond’s book, cheerfully admits stealing the title without ever having read the book.

How the Dead Live finds the Detective sent away from London to investigate the disappearance of a doctor’s wife in a small town. It is no ordinary disappearance, however. The missing woman, who was once a vibrant, social creature, had taken to wearing a black veil and whispering when she appeared in public. As if that’s not enough, she’s been missing for six months and the local police have made only a token effort to find one of the town’s most prominent residents. This state of affairs does not sit well with the Detective, who has little patience with incompetence and even less patience with corruption, which is what he finds himself faced with the moment he starts his inquiry.

Raymond’s book has many of the trappings of Gothic horror; a veiled woman, a decaying mansion, mysterious voices, but this window dressing serves only to contrast with the real horror. There are no ghosts, no voices reaching out from the great beyond to guide or torment the living. Supernatural horror is a crutch in disguise, something that reassures while it supposedly terrifies. If a ghost can live forever why can’t you? In Raymond’s world no one lives forever, no matter how desperately they want to. The Detective exists in a world where the only constant is death.

For all its horror and police conventions, however, the greatest surprise of How the Dead Live is that, in the end, it’s not a police procedural or a horror story. It’s a romance. The central conspiracy the Detective uncovers is not one motivated by malice or greed, but by love. True, there is no shortage of villains in this book, but, at the very core of the book, where one expects to find the worst humanity has to offer, Raymond substitutes the best. It should be a relief. It’s not.

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