It’s always a safe bet that when Robert E. Dunn puts out a call for reviewers of a new book, I’ll be the guy standing on the chair so he can hold his hand higher than anyone else. Having devoured and loved all of his horror novels from The Red Highway forward, I’ve become an avid fan and follower, believing him to be among the best and most original of authors working within the genre. But in spite of the content of those previous novels and novellas, it would be incorrect to call him strictly a horror writer. He’s what I think of as a reader’s writer, a guy who, like Joe Lansdale, writes for the sake of telling a story more than for the purpose of conforming to a particular trope or genre and he’s received easily as much if not more acclaim for his crime fiction as he has for his horror, not to mention a couple of steamy erotic mysteries written under the name of Drury Jamison. He writes because it’s what he’s compelled to do, because it’s a field that has chosen him and not the other way around, much the same as King, Ketchum, and Straub.
With Dead Man’s Badge, I made my first foray beyond Dunn’s outstanding horror fiction and came face to face with a surprising truth: his crime noir is easily as dark as his other works and, if it’s any measure of a standard of quality, it may be the best thing he’s ever written. At its onset Longview Moody finds himself in the Mexican desert digging his own grave. What was supposed to be a simple and, for him, routine money smuggling operation has gone way south and it looks like all hope of escape is gone as he faces two armed assailants, one a corrupt DEA agent and the other a Mexican cartel member. But Moody isn’t your average bad guy. After leaving one dead and the other facing certain death at the mercy of hungry coyotes, he takes his revenge and more than a million dollars in cartel cash and flees back across the border, seeking out the only cop in the world he can trust, his half-brother Paris Tindall. But when he finds Paris dead and assuming himself to have been the intended target, he takes on his brother’s persona as the new police chief in the small Texas border town of Lansdale. And as he begins to uncover clues and his two lives begin to converge, it would be an understatement to say that from there all hell breaks loose.
The first thing you’ll notice about Dead Man’s Badge is its near perfect adherence to the classic traditions of great noir fiction. Longview Moody is the very definition of a loser, an amoral criminal with anger issues and a tendency to charge headlong into danger, guns blazing or fists flying. Then you have your femme fatale in the guise of the sultry and seductive hotel manager, Lenore, a character whose motives and loyalties remain obfuscated throughout much of the story, presenting Moody with both a love interest and a potential antagonist in one. Add in a plentiful mix of fateful choices and potentially disastrous decisions and you have a near perfect formula for a gritty noir crime story. But there’s more to it than that. The southern border town of Lansdale, Texas is a richly imagined melting pot of angry cops, feds, and hardcore killers and criminals, and it’s often hard to discern which is which. Within its limits, Dunn has created an exemplary gritty setting where mayhem and bloody violence is always just a whisper away, and death is as close as the person standing next to you. But Longview is a perfectly developed character and his aggressive shoot first, find his own damn answers later approach is uniquely suited to the brutal situations Robert Dunn places him in throughout this ultra-fast, hyper-violent tale of loss, redemption, and ultimately, revenge.
I know I’ve already said it, but it bears repeating: Dunn’s horror stories are never less than stellar and I’ve loved every one of them with a passion, but there’s no question in my mind that crime fiction is where he truly finds his voice as a wordsmith. His characters are three dimensional, sympathetic, and relatable and his setting is nothing less than stellar in every sense of the word. When you read this book, you find yourself firmly placed within the tale, not unlike sitting around a campfire listening to a master storyteller spinning mesmerizing and captivating yarns designed to thrill, frighten, teach, and entertain all at the same time. Dead Man’s Badge elevates Robert Dunn into the stratosphere alongside such great masters as Joe R. Lansdale, Cormac McCarthy, and S. Craig Zahler in my estimation and I can’t wait to read more of this brand of brutal and gutsy fiction from the tip of his praiseworthy pen. You shouldn’t wait either. Snag this book as soon as you possibly can and lose yourself for a while. You’ll thank me for it later.