Robin Cook

01:00 Fri 05th Apr 2002 |

Q. Why 'I was Robin Cook'

A. Just a little pun on one of Cook's better-known titles under his pen name of Derek Raymond, I Was Dora Suarez (which was put to music in the early 1990s by the band Gallon Drunk with Cook/Raymond reading from the novel) and the fact that he is, as they say, no longer with us.

Q. So who was he

A. Robert William Arthur Cook (aka Robin Cook; Derek Raymond) was born in London in 1931. After dropping out of Eton at 16, he spent much of his early career among criminals and working as a pornographer, organiser of illegal gambling, money launderer, pig-slaughterer and mini-cab driver - though he did manage to take time out from such activities to do his National Service in the 7th Royal Tank Regiment between 1949 and 1951.

His first book, The Crust on Its Uppers, was published under the name of Robin Cook in 1962. He eventually adopted the nom-de-plume Derek Raymond - not the roughest-toughest name, you might think, but there you go - in order not to be confused with the highly successful US author of Coma. As Derek Raymond he wrote his celebrated Factory series - the Factory was a special police outfit, which dealt with some of the most grisly crimes and which itself frequently operated outside of the law - which was full of gruesome murder, bent coppers and crooked toffs. He spent much of the 1970s and 1980s out of the UK, in Morocco, Italy, Turkey, the USA and particularly France. He was married five times. He died of cancer in 1994.

Q. And what was his thing

A. Cook himself wrote that his subjects were: 'Social realism, the collapse and reorientation of the British class structure...meaningless snobbery and violence in British life versus the positive part British thought could play in world affairs.' A broad canvas, in fact. One reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement noted that Cook's book The Legacy of the Stiff Upper-Lip is 'an indictment of the complacent materialism in an Establishment based on an Eton education and a life in the City... Here is the violence of our times, casual and generalised violence which is made meaningful only through particularisation, through the single detail.'

Despite depictions of horrific brutality, particularly of a sexual nature, many commentators have found humour in the books, and satire - albeit somewhat hidden - underlay much of Cook's work.

Q. All very noir

A. Noir indeed. And the Warner Books editions of his titles featured cover art by Paul Millner very much in the tradition of pulp-fiction covers and posters for 1940s films noir.

Q. Sounds pretty gritty. What was he like as a person

A. Those who met him in his later years in such Soho haunts as the Coach and Horses, the Three Greyhounds or late-night drinking establishments like the Troy Club (this is before the days of legit all-night boozers in central London, which only really started cropping up in the late 1990s), would find him genial and unassuming. He looked very distinctive with gaunt face, prominent cheekbones, beret pulled forward over his eyes and perpetual cigarette - quite the image of the artist at play.

There's a description of him in William Donaldson's (aka Henry Root) autobiography From Winchester to This. Donaldson has been commissioned by the Evening Standard, as a fellow public school-educated aficionado of lowlife, to interview Cook. Cook suggests - to Donaldson's horror, he doesn't willingly do pubs - that they get together in the Coach and Horses in Soho. Though they have never before met, Donaldson, who is awaiting the arrival of Cook's autobiography The Hidden Files which he is to read for background before the interview, constructs:

'a theory about Cook based on the rackety early CV (Eton drop-out, class traitor, counter hand in a porno bookshop, underworld habitu�)...I don't want it to be refuted by anything in his memoirs...[cut to the pub] and suddenly Cook is standing at my table - an immensely frail old party in a beret (which in itself is irritating somehow)...I ask Cook whether he's temperamentally opposed to all forms of authority. "Oh yes," he says.'

Despite all his preconceptions about his subject Donaldson ends up kind of liking Cook, finding him polite and amenable, though he remains suspicious of what he sees as Cook's wanting to 'live the life' of the subjects about which he writes.

Q. Was Cook a good writer

A. He was certainly idiosyncratic, and yes, he could write well and the stories are compelling - and the dialogue is snappy, reminiscent of some of the classic American authors of hard-boiled fiction, particularly Dashiel Hammet, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. Whether he is the 'undiscovered genius' that some critics want us to believe him to be is a moot point, but the books are without question notable for their 'stomach-churning exactness about murder, madness and mutilation' (The Times) and their 'bizarre mixture of Chandleresque elegance and naked brutality' (Daily Telegraph). Sentimental they are not.

Q. And the essential titles

As Robin Cook: The Crust on Its Uppers; The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip; A State of Denmark

As Derek Raymond: The Factory Series

See also the answerbank article on pulp fiction

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

Do you have a question about Arts & Literature?