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My Friend Robin

I will leave it to more rigorous and measured commentators and critics to assess the legacy of Derek Raymond’s fiction and his place in the crime and mystery canon. I would rather remember my friend Robin.

The good mate who had to change his name, except in France.

Born into the British upper-middle class, educated at Eton, and something of a black sheep in his family circle, Robin Cook (formally, Robert William Arthur Cook), had written a half dozen well-received novels in the 1960s about the London demimonde of petty crooks and class war before his personal life came badly untangled and he flirted with petty criminality himself, eventually being obliged to leave the country and begin a decade of wandering across Europe—through Italy, Spain, and France, principally—during which time survival became more important than writing. He smuggled stolen cars over borders, became foreign minister for a commune in Italy that had seceded from the rest of the country, and toiled in the fields as a manual laborer in rural France. Add to this a failed marriage and semi-abandoned offspring before the pieces of his life finally began coming together again.

His return to writing in the second half of the 1970s saw him pen the first in a series of books featuring a nameless detective who was based around a police station on Poland Street in London’s Soho, He Died with His Eyes Open (1976). However, when it came time to get the book published, he was informed that he could no longer use his own name. During his absence from the bookshelves, an American writer sporting the same moniker, now best known, of course, for medical thrillers, had emerged to considerable success. Thus Robert William Arthur Cook became Derek Raymond, and this is how the world now knows him. Apart from the French public, who were only aware of him as Robin Cook—his American counterpart never was a hit there, and local publishers were willing to issue Cook’s books under his real name. Actually, abetted by the fact that he still lived in France until 1989, in the Dordogne, and that he had become well known as a popular presence in the local literary and crime scene—with his plum British accent, eternal black beret, and skeletal appearance—he quickly established himself as something of a cult figure there, where his sales were quite noteworthy in contrast with those in the United Kingdom and the United States, where he was still something of an unknown.

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Doorstep Horror

Policeman at the Barbican Building SiteOctober 1977. I’m eight years old. Dad’s at work. I’m sitting at home hunched over a chessboard waiting for him. White and black plastic. Pawns and pieces on a foldout board fraying at the edges and along the central crease. Knights in profile facing the King and Queen. I’ve been teaching him to play.

A radio on in the kitchen. Mum’s getting ready to go out. She has a part-time job at the Imperial pub on Bewsey Road, a five-minute walk away, serving pints of mixed and pints of tan and black to wire-factory workers: No-Danger Joe, who has his own chair by the door. Nodding Kenny, who’ll agree with anything his boss says. Varley, the pisshead with eyes the color of verdigris, trying it on with the barmaids. She serves them all until they’re too drunk to speak, at which point the manager, a gruff Belfastard, points to the door.

Dad works at the police station in Chester. Top floor. I’ve been to the canteen there. You can look out at the river Dee and the Roman wall while you eat your pie and mash and tea (two sugars). This was in the days before healthy eating. Healthy anything. This was smoker’s cough with your cake and a pall of undigested whisky fumes at breakfast. Bring the lad in to work for the morning. Nice treat while Mum’s in hospital. The receptionist — Brenda or Beryl or Olive — asks if I want a Quality Street sweet while I hide behind Dad’s legs. He’s all smiles and muttonchop whiskers. The clatter of typewriters vibrates through the building. I can smell carbon paper and Quink ink and wet dog and leather. Hoops of sweat under armpits, rings of grime on loosened collars. Brylcreemed hair and Hamlet cigars in top pockets. The world is filled with villains and slags and bastards. Some of them work here.

That radio. Chat and comment and opinion. All buzz. All background. Dad comes in. Winter’s breath full of bonfires and petrol fumes. Kiss, kiss. Dinner’s in the oven, cold lips. Mum goes out into crystallizing darkness. Dad and his brown, steaming hot pot, slashed through with red cabbage. I can’t look at his plate. Newspapers. Can of beer. I wait. I listen.

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