Edward Bunker, the criminal turned crime writer, was born on December 31, 1933, in Los Angeles, California. Bunker’s parents were both drawn to Hollywood by the lure of opportunities in the film industry. His mother, originally from Vancouver, was a dancer in Busby Berkeley musicals and his father was a stage hand and grip.
They were also both alcoholics and their marriage ended when Bunker, their only child, was five years old. He was then sent to a series of foster homes and finally to live with his aunt’s family.
He also spent time in various juvenile detention centres. When he was 17 he stabbed a guard and was sent to San Quentin Pen for five years, arriving with the dubious distinction of being the prison’s youngest ever inmate.
In his teens Bunker had been befriended by former actress Louise Fazenda, the wife of movie producer Hal Wallis, who introduced Bunker to a number of celebrities, including boxer Jack Dempsey and writers Tennessee Williams and Aldous Huxley.
Fazenda managed to get Bunker a typewriter in his cell and he wrote numerous stories and unpublishable novels. He later said that his success came not from talent but from persistence.
In 1973, while he was in prison, his first novel, No Beast So Fierce, was published. It is the story of an ex-con who can’t adapt to life outside and keeps getting pulled back into the cycle of crime, arrests, incarceration, re-offence and re-incarceration, a common theme in Bunker’s novels. At the same time he sold a non-fiction piece about prison life to Harpers magazine.
By the time Bunker was released in 1975 he had spent 18 years of his life behind bars for theft, bank robbery, forgery and drug running. He began to make enough money from his writing that he didn’t feel the need to return to a criminal lifestyle.
No Beast So Fierce (which I think is his best book) was turned into a movie in 1978, Straight Time starring Dustin Hoffman.
Through his Hollywood friends Bunker also got bit parts in movies, most famously in Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino is a big Bunker fan) as the quickly deceased Mr. Blue.
Apart from his other novels — The Animal Factory, Little Boy Blue, Dog Eat Dog and Stark — Bunker also wrote a vivid memoir, The Education of a Felon.
Bunker died in 2005 of complications from diabetes.