Robin Cook, the first Robin Cook (not the guy who writes bestselling medical thrillers), was born in London in 1931 and died there 63 years later, suggesting an order otherwise absent in a chaotic and almost dottily brave life. Cook, married five times, was the son of a millionaire British textile magnate, born with the silver spoon and all that. He went to school at Eton, “the assembly line for rulers and bastards” (as he called it). Then, rather than proceed to Oxbridge or the army, he rebelled against his background, drifting into a world of petty, and sometimes not so petty, crime — his affable manners and toff accent were useful in ways that he hadn’t expected. He was an excellent con man.
In the early 1960s, Cook ran gaming tables in Chelsea and sold pornography in Soho. His name was splashed across the front pages because of a scam involving a stolen Rubens or two. He rubbed shoulders with aristocrats and gangsters and wrote books — comedies, but always with a nasty edge — about the dangerous demi-monde he’d chosen to inhabit. “The Crust on Its Uppers,” “Bombe Surprise” and “A State of Denmark” are novels that feel as much a part of their time as those by Iris Murdoch — except that Cook wrote about tarts, thugs, chancers, rent boys and Fascists, not the sexual rondelays of academic Oxford.
“The Crust on Its Uppers” (a great title) is memorable for its slang and linguistic freshness. Going crazy becomes, in Cook-speak, “he lost his pedals in a serious manner.” By 1970, Cook had a career going, five or so novels written — and then something happened. He too lost his pedals. A marriage broke up and London became too hot, or maybe just too boring. He went to live abroad, first in Italy, then in remotest rural France, where he quit writing altogether for almost a decade, working on farms and in vineyards. Robin Cook had vanished, or died, it seemed to most people, and maybe he had.
By the time he reappeared in London in the early 1980s, his already slender, rakish form had become almost skeletally thin. Beady eyes stared at you from a skull that belonged on a cadaver. His hair was filthy and his teeth were best not to think about. His haggard face was craggy and lined, and his sheet-like pallor suggested perpetual hangover. Yet there was unmistakable charisma too. He wore a black leather jacket and a beret and pronounced himself miffed by the existence of the new Robin Cook, referring to him as “the ‘Coma’ bloke. Cheeky sod’s taken over my name. Bit much that.” So he was forced to publish the novel he’d just completed, “He Died With His Eyes Open,” under a pseudonym, Derek Raymond.
All this was fitting, in a way, for if “He Died With His Eyes Open” marked a new beginning — and it did — that beginning was dark, maybe desperate. From its opening chapter, in which a careworn detective is casually handed a murder case his superiors don’t want, the book refuses to behave like the police procedural it purports to be. The dead man, Staniland, has left behind a taped journal in which he reveals himself to be a thoughtful and interesting writer, and the detective, as he follows the trail, finds himself drawn into just the same mistakes as the victim. He knows the case will end badly for him. He almost wills it. “I write about what people do to each other,” Cook wrote later in his strange autobiography, “The Hidden Files.” “It isn’t pretty.”
At the core of “He Died With His Eyes Open” lies the hero’s fever-dream about death and his confrontation with a venomous and entirely convincing human evil. “The psychopath is a furnace that gives no heat,” Cook wrote; here, and in the other Raymond novels that followed — the so-called Factory series (“factory” being slang for cop-shop) — “The Devil’s Home on Leave,” “How the Dead Live” and “I Was Dora Suarez,” Cook unremittingly pursued his vision, creating stories so bleak and existential that only the French could film them. It’s said that an eminent publisher vomited on his desk when he read the bloody beginning to “I Was Dora Suarez”; a nice story, apocryphal probably, but anyone who reads these books will get the point. There’s an entirely convincing nightmare atmosphere in this work — it touches you and sticks with you. The Factory books resemble the bloodiest Jacobean tragedy (more than those by Ian Rankin).
“You can treat yourself badly if you have treated yourself badly, if you’re not there any more,” Cook wrote, and when he came back to London it was indeed as if something had been burned out of him; in conversation he could be a bore, but that was probably an act too — he was a charming ghost, this poet maudit, and however much he drank in the Soho bars that were his daytime haunt, he always went back to his flat and the word processor at night, to muse coolly on social disaster and moral decay.
“I left the up escalator to ambitious sods like Kingsley Amis,” Cook once said. “I had the down escalator all to myself.”
Not quite true: He’s been dead more than a decade now, but the publisher Serpent’s Tail is in the process of reissuing his novels — the Factory series and the early novels too, all of them under the name Derek Raymond. The first Robin Cook has finally disappeared. He’d probably have welcomed the idea.