DogEatDogBy EDWARD BUNKER (St. Martin’s Press; 1996)

Quite simply one of the greatest crime/noir novels of the nineties, and perhaps of all time, DOG EAT DOG is a standout work by the late Edward Bunker.  An ex-con turned novelist (and occasional actor), Bunker mixes gutter realism with Jim Thompson-esque sensation, resulting in an account that reads like Bunker’s iconic debut novel NO BEAST SO FIERCE crossed with Thompson’s AFTER DARK MY SWEET.

The main characters are a trio of ex-cons whose ranks include “Mad Dog” McCain, a hardened killer who more than lives up to his nickname, Charles “Diesel” Carson, an equally hardened thug, and Troy Augustus Cameron, a middle class boy turned criminal.  Given the lack of legitimate employment prospects for ex-cons in the straight world (a dilemma dramatized, unforgettably, in NO BEAST SO FIERCE), it isn’t long before this intrepid threesome become embroiled in the robbery of a drug dealer and, when this unlikely gambit is pulled off, a wholly ill-advised kidnaping scheme.

A primary concern aired by Bunker is with California’s Three Strikes law, which, he argues, actually encourages crime among ex-cons like those who headline this book, all of whom have two strikes on their record and so figure they have nothing to lose by gaining a third.  We also learn a number of interesting facts about the underworld, a universe Edward Bunker knew intimately.

We learn, for instance, that the baggy pants style favored by black males got started in reform schools, where the clothes are always several sizes too large, and that stolen contraband is quite easy to sell on the black market even though the knockdown on the retail price (one third wholesale) “is itself robbery,” and that Mexican prisons are quite different from those in the US, and do a far better job of preparing convicts for their eventual integration into the outside world.  None of this, I should add, ever compromises the narrative’s forward momentum—rather, such detail actually enhances it with reality-based flavoring.

There’s also some truly impacting violence here (possibly inspired by Bunker’s association with Quentin Tarantino, for whom he acted in RESERVOIR DOGS), including Mad Dog’s horrifically protracted murder of his wife in the opening pages, that some readers will doubtless call excessive.  Yet the ultimate effect of all the bloodshed is curiously moving, particularly a climactic murder committed by one of the principals that’s downright stunning in its sheer ugliness—not least because the guy being killed is one we’ve come to despise!  It’s that dichotomy, of presenting frankly vile characters with whom we emphasize almost in spite of ourselves, that makes this such a memorable book; well, that and the superb writing, which makes for a wholly satisfying thriller that brings up a number of thorny real-life issues.