A man in his fifties is found in West London having been tortured and beaten to death. Within hours, the chief inspector has decided it’s a deadbeat case with few prospect of either headlines or being solved. The case is passed to a detective sergeant from A14, the section for unexplained deaths. The section is considered the graveyard of career ambition, staffed by plodders who try to grind out results for difficult cases. All the sergeant has to go on is that the dead man’s name is Charles Staniland and he died a slow, painful death somewhere other than where he was found. As he investigates the case, trooping round the underbelly of London, he slowly starts to become obsessed with Staniland’s life, and in particular the femme fatale, Barbara, a woman whom Staniland found impossible to both live with and without. Finding it difficult to unearth a solid lead or evidence, the sergeant tries to unsettle and unnerve those who he suspects are responsible for the murder, but in so doing he’s making himself vulnerable in the same way as had Staniland.
Derek Raymond is the pen-name of Robin Cook, his own name already taken by the medical thriller writer and the Labour politician. Having looked him up online, it seems that Raymond’s own history has more than a few passing references to Charles Staniland, the murder victim in He Died With His Eyes Open – both retreated as boys to the countryside in the Second World War, went to public school, dropped out of upper class life, went on the lam around Europe, bought a crumbling chateau in France, squandered their inheritance, worked as odd-job men and in the vineyards, their wives left them taking the children, they came back to Britain, worked as taxi drivers, and fell in with criminals. The unnamed policeman, one suspects, is his alter-ego, a stronger character, but with the same obsessive, reflective tendencies and weaknesses. Given its strong autobiographical elements, it’s no wonder then that Staniland’s nasal gazing, set out in the novel as passages from a set of tapes he used to record his thoughts, are very rich in detail and insight. The result is a book that is dark and sombre and which reads very much like a US hardboiled PI story, especially given the loner nature and personality of the cop. The prose is generally excellent and for a while I felt the book was first rate. The characterisation of the unnamed policeman, Staniland and Barbara is well constructed. As the story progresses, however, the plotting and pacing become a little uneven and ragged, and Staniland’s tapes and the plot in general become a little tiring. One knows from quite a long way out who killed Staniland, which left few options for the ending, which felt a little staged and false. Overall, a dark story with great prose, which becomes a little ragged as it progresses.