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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


He Died with His Eyes Open

Derek Raymond
(Robin Cook)

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To purchase He Died with His Eyes Open

Title: He Died with His Eyes Open
Author: Derek Raymond
Genre: Novel
Written: 1984
Length: 230 pages
Availability: He Died with His Eyes Open - US
He Died with His Eyes Open - UK
He Died with His Eyes Open - Canada
Il est mort les yeux ouverts - France
Er starb mit offenen Augen - Deutschland
E morì a occhi aperti - Italia
  • The first in The Factory Series
  • With an Introduction by James Sallis
  • He Died with His Eyes Open was made into a film in 1985, directed by Jacques Deray and starring Michel Serrault and Charlotte Rampling

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Our Assessment:

A- : strong stuff, in every respect

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/6/2013 Joyce Carol Oates
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/5/1987 Newgate Callendar
Sunday Times . 10/6/1984 John Coleman

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book is beautifully written, grimy as some of the characters are. Mr. Raymond is a master of the sharp vignette, the telling phrase, the speech patterns that perfectly describe a character. All of the people in his book are vividly alive." - Newgate Callendar, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Clockwork Orange vision of contemporary Britain blends mesmerically with sergeant's increasing, finally over-the-top involvement with weirdo victim. Where not sentimental, gripping study in obsession and absolute, awful evil." - John Coleman, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       He Died with His Eyes Open is narrated by a nameless London police sergeant. He is forty-one and, a fixture in A14, the dead-end Unexplained Deaths department -- "by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service" --, has little hopes of career advancement -- which is more or less just fine with him; he doesn't have that kind of ambition -- in contrast to go-getter Bowman from Serious Crimes, already a chief inspector at age thirty-two. As he explains to Bowman: "I like being independent, I like working my own way" -- and at Unexplained Deaths he's certainly allowed to go his own solitary way, pursuing his cases like a lone wolf. (He has a boss who isn't so much understanding as someone who wholeheartedly embraces a hands-off style of management: when, well into the case, the sergeant wants to sound him out about how to proceed his boss tries his best to put him off: "Well, coming to see me isn't going to change anything. I really don't see the point".)
       For better and worse, the narrator has his own style and approach; as someone observes:

it's funny, you don't come on like a copper somehow; you must either be a good one or a fucking bad one.
       The sergeant's office is in 'the Factory', the notorious police station in Poland Street in the heart of London, in Soho: "It's called the Factory by the villains because it has a bad reputation for doing suspects over in the interrogation rooms".
       How bad is its reputation ? When the narrator suggests one person he wants some information from isn't forthcoming enough with his answers and so maybe they should continue their conversation at the Factory the man responds:
     'What, the Factory ?' he moaned. 'Poland Street ? Christ, I might as well top myself and have done with it !'
       (Spoiler: the sergeant doesn't take him down to the Factory, but the man might have been better off taking his chances there .....)
       The crime the narrator is investigating is the brutal murder of fifty-one-year-old Charles Staniland -- a "derelict death", as Bowman calls it in handing it off to Unexplained Deaths. The only thing remarkable about the case is the brutality of the murder, the narrator admitting: "I've seen plenty of violent deaths, but never anything worse than this one" -- and that's really saying a lot. Someone really went to town on Staniland; they didn't just want to kill him, they wanted him to suffer as much as possible.
       The narrator digs into Staniland's life and finds it was a miserable mess. He drank too much, lost what he had of the family fortune, failed in his marriage. He wasn't without talent -- for a while he worked on scripts for the BBC, and he was good at it -- but never got sufficient hold anywhere. As the narrator sums up: "The man was a walking wound, a mobile case of sorrow".
       Among the few of Staniland's effects the narrator comes across are cassette tapes, bringing the victim and his story alive as he listens to them. They also bring both case and victim closer to home; as the narrator can't help but realize, he's a lot like this poor dead soul -- as even the woman Staniland was involved with recognizes: "the trouble with you is, you're a bit like Charlie yourself in your own way". More than a bit, in fact. (Not least, his marriage also failed -- he's divorced -- and both men had daughters who have long not been part of their lives.) Following in Staniland's footsteps, to the seedy pubs and clubs he drank in, doesn't help either.
       This is the first in the Factory series of novels, but the police station barely figures here; the narrator rarely bothers going to his desk, spending most of his time tracking down places and people, wandering the seedier streets of London. He understands that the path he's on is following Staniland's trail way too close for comfort, the danger not from the threatened violence all around -- he can handle himself in that regard -- but from the personal toll it takes. Soon enough, he realizes: "I care too much about this case. I've got overinvolved in it".
       Talk about understatements ..... Certainly, his approach to getting information from the woman Staniland was last obsessed with, Barbara, is way too personal. But, as he explains to Bowman:
This is a case where you've got to tease the truth out, not beat it with a club.
       Tease he does, but at no small cost to his own well-being. It doesn't help that it's not just about figuring out who is responsible:
     'I don't think I'll have much trouble identifying them,' I said. 'It's proving it, that's the snag.
       Barbara is a fascinating sort of femme fatale, with Staniland succumbing completely to her while the narrator balances precariously on the cusp. She's a dangerous beauty; as Staniland diagnosed:
     Barbara will do anything for or to anybody, because it doesn't matter to her what she does.
       The narrator plays the warrant card when necessary, but much of the time chooses not to identify himself as a policeman; he doesn't act like your typical one either, as He Died with His Eyes Open is far more like a lone-PI noir than police procedural. That extends to the Factory: that might be the place where they beat confessions out of criminals -- the way things are done on the force --, but that's simply not his style. Not that he shies away from the confrontational -- but on his own terms, well outside the system. He's clearly very good at his job, but he doesn't fit in; Unexplained Deaths, with its lack of supervision and attention by the powers that be, is clearly the one department where he has the freedom to get away with acting the way he does; it's a perfect fit, even if it means he has no chance for career advancement.
       It's the cassette tapes that the victim left behind, and their revealing monologues, that give the narrator the most insight into the victim and his life and death. The narrator listens to them all -- even if Staniland's words get to him, hitting close to home as they. It's no surprise that in the final confrontation he practically embraces the same fate Staniland had provoked: he definitely does not play it by the book, or even take the sensible precautions (beyond leaving a message at the office, which at least brings Bowman to the scene and allows for things to be properly sorted; it's a close call, however).
       He Died with His Eyes Open wallows in seedy 1980s London, suffused with drugs and alcohol, sex, and violence. Staniland had tried to escape it with his wife and daughter, spending years in France, but when he returned, his marriage collapsed, he flung himself entirely into these depths -- and they swallowed him. And while the narrator can mostly maintain a self-control that Staniland obviously couldn't, he too navigates these dark and dirty corners of London with all too much ease: he knows he too could sink into them.
       Staniland was a writer -- even if the record he left behind was almost all talk (those cassettes) -- and, in narrating this story, the protagonist follows in these footsteps too (though he doesn't frame or claim it as the work of an author). On one of those cassettes, Staniland said:
The ordeal the writer sets himself is to track down existence and then, both stripped naked, fight it out.
       In taking on this case, the narrator follows a similar path -- down to that final confrontation. On another tape Staniland says: "Most people live with their eyes shut, but I mean to die with mine open". Sad and sorry though his lot was, the narrator clearly admires this in Staniland -- and it's one of the reasons he is so determined to hunt down his killer(s). He sees Staniland as a soulmate, too: his philosophy -- eyes wide open to the bitter end -- is the same. It's just a hell of a ride into the darkness, eyes open all that long way .....
       He Died with His Eyes Open is harrowing stuff -- not least in the twisted minds of the perpetrators. Parts of this explanation seem a bit over the top, but by this time Raymond has painted such a twisted world that even such abnormality -- and such reaction to it -- seem, if not entirely plausible, at least to fit right in. Some of the narrator's actions are rather questionable, too -- not least how he approaches and handles Barbara -- and the lack of police-oversight is stunning, but Raymond does just enough to ground it in the plausible. The relationship with Bowman -- they are always antagonistic, but also work together, when and as needs be -- helps a lot in this regard, and it's no coïncidence the first and last person he talks to is Bowman. And for all the suffering he's apparently endured, the narrator isn't broken in the way Staniland was; he's an isolated figure, and clearly misses the domesticity he once enjoyed, but he's both strong and moral, a sympathetic hero.
       Things do go a bit off the rails in the final confrontation -- what the hell was he thinking ? -- but even this comes across as a believable step, given all the previous ones.
       He Died with His Eyes Open verges on the unbearable at points in its wallow in the disgusting, not least in its smells and sights. Characters are, in their different ways, brutal, cold, petty, and weak. But it's not unremittingly ugly, which helps. And the victim -- almost alive again, in the memories of him that are recounted to the narrator, but even more so the first-hand testimony of the cassette-tapes -- is an interesting figure: even if he weren't good and dead from the beginning, everything the narrator learns about Staniland just hammers home the point that he was beyond saving. The best the narrator can do is make sure those responsible pay -- and that maybe he, at least, is saved; as noted, it winds up being a really close call .....
       Raymond wields a sharp pen. Like his narrator in his investigations, he operates fast; He Died with His Eyes Open is action-packed, quick, and sharp, with Staniland's recordings effectively used to periodically slow the pace -- and neatly offer insight both into victim and investigator.
       Parts of He Died with His Eyes Open can be hard to take; the slang is the least of it -- though some it might throw American readers. If you can handle the brutality -- and the stench and sights --, and overlook some of the improbabilities -- like that any policeman could get away with conducting an investigation like this ... -- it's a very good piece of writing and a very good thriller.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2020

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He Died with His Eyes Open: Reviews: He Died with His Eyes Open - the movie: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Derek Raymond (Robin Cook) lived 1931 to 1994.

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© 2020 the complete review

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