Anyone who knows me knows i’m a sucker for hard-boiled noir – ‘criminals amongst criminals’ books, the sort where you know there won’t be a happy ending. And this slice for the late, great Mr Bunker is a fine example of this tradition – a pacey, violent, visceral tale about a trio of jailbirds deciding to come together for a final score.
For those who don’t know of Edward Bunker, he was, alongside Chester Himes, perhaps the quintessential example of how the school of hard-knocks can produce some of the finest examples of convincing noir writing in the genre. Bunker was a career criminal for many years, and after failing to go straight, he served a long stretch for armed robbery, during which he taught himself to write from a love of reading. By the time he finally got out and came to publication, his output was prolific, and he had refined a clear voice that captured the lives of multi-cultural criminals in and out of the system with the upmost authenticity. Indeed, when Quentin Tarantino was making his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, he sought out Bunker to play Mr Blue due to the unique credibility such a presence would offer the cast. Good call, Quent.
In ‘DOG EAT DOG’ we have a fine example of his style – Troy, Diesel, and Mad Dog, who met in a juvenile detention centre, reunite after Troy gets out of the can to pull a heist that will set them up for life. We know, of course, that things will go wrong – bad guys always get their comeuppance, right? – but, if you’re the kind of person who secretly likes peeling back scabs or roots for villains, you’ll extract a twisted kind of fun hanging out with these guys for two-hundred odd ages. Bunker uses multiple viewpoints more or less, alternating between the minds of Troy, the brains of the operation, a guy who has made his choices and lives by them; Diesel, the bruiser, a heavy-set lump, loyal to Troy, looking to make some big dough to set up his kid and give him the opportunities he never got; and Mad Dog, a psychopath, who’s paranoia and sadism make him volatile and dangerous and prone to acts of graphic cruelty, as the early chapters in the novel shockingly expose.
As with all good existential noir, DEG has a distinct setting – Bunker’s LA and beyond has a pertinence that tells of a writer who has witnessed its change. He comments heavily on cultural poverty and decay on display in parts once affluent, and the impact drugs, inequality and mass-migration have stained upon areas. Although bleak, this background gives the novel a fitting heartbeat – we’re in a land of little forgiveness, where everyman is out for himself more or less, and no one will bat an eyelid when you’re gone.
One thing i really liked in DEG, reminiscent of other books of the genre such as Pelican’s equally stylised, but perhaps more refined novel ‘SHOEDOG, was the sense of fatalism present throughout – somehow, we know from the off that there’s not going to be a happy ending in this story. And what Bunker does so well is to immerse us into the characters, particularly Troy and Diesel, who in spite of their deviancies, are men with a certain honour and devotion to each other that is ultimately endearing.
Also, if you’re a fan of gritty, fast, kill-kill, bang-bang bank robber books, this is deffo up there in the top ten in my view. The dialogue is on a par with Elmore Leonard, and the action is harsh and unrelenting. It’s the kind of book you can read in a day but are unlikely to forget for quite some time.
If you’ve not discovered Bunker, go out and find him.