The battle between the Poet Laureate and a Reservoir Dog

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The Independent Culture

In a most unlikely literary battle, the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, was beaten for a top prize yesterday by a former inmate of the infamous San Quentin prison in California who appeared in the film Reservoir Dogs.

In a most unlikely literary battle, the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, was beaten for a top prize yesterday by a former inmate of the infamous San Quentin prison in California who appeared in the film Reservoir Dogs.

Edward Bunker, who at 17 was San Quentin's youngest inmate, was toasted at the Macallan Daggers Awards for Crime Writing, in London, for his "sinewy prose".

Bunker, who played Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs, had called his prize-winning autobiography Mr Blue. It was pitted against Motion's Wainewright The Poisoner, which the Poet Laureate describes as "an impressionistic approach to the life of a relatively obscure Victorian artist and unscrupulous poisoner".

Motion was at the award ceremony at the Café Royal restaurant on Regent Street, but Mr Bunker was in Los Angeles, in ill-health according to his publishers. Bunker says in the autobiography: "In recent years my body has shown evidence of mortality, bladder cancer cured by surgery 10 years ago, antibodies for hepatitis C, a mild heart attack and borderline adult diabetes."

Abandoned by his mother at the age of eight, Bunker found himself in reform schools where he realised he was "swimming in the meanest milieu of society". After trying to rob a liquor store at the age of 17 he spent 18 years in San Quentin and Folsom jails.

He escaped prison and at one stage he was even on the FBI's Most Wanted list. He attacked another inmate, a serial killer, for flirting with him, slicing open the man's back with a weapon made from a toothbrush and razor. Bunker came to believe that "once you've been locked up, you're locked out". He said: "I realised at 19 that I either had to make it writing or make it stealing."

He has published four novels, including No Beast So Fierce, and has received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of Runaway Train.

Guests at the award ceremony were scratching their heads to remember when there could have been a more curious battle for a literary prize. To have a Poet Laureate up for a crime writing award was unique, never mind the piquancy of the opposition.

It became clear that among young British crime writers a new trend was emerging - young, spiky, socially aware and politically correct.

Take Denise Mina, a Glasgow criminologist and the winner of the Best Short Story, Helena and the Babies. Her story is set in a nursing home among the confused and incontinent. This, Mina claims, is the obvious contemporary use of a country-house setting. "All the country houses have been sold off for conference centres or old folks' homes. So I set this in one. I have worked in one myself. It is about abuse by nurses," she said.

She was the only British winner of the three main awards, the other two going to Americans, Jonathan Lethem and Bunker.

Kate Stacey's book The Canary Thief has domestic violence as its background crime. Miss Stacey, a victim of domestic violence herself, said: "This is a very big issue. I don't think that domestic violence is looked at nearly enough in crime novels."

Natasha Cooper, a crime novelist and the chairman of the Crime Writers Association, said the "big shift" in crime writing was away from serial killer novels. "Gross, graphic violence is no longer speaking to readers. It is shifting to the more subtly sinister books where the violence takes place offstage."

Andrew Taylor, the authorof The Roth Trilogy, agreed, saying that what readers of British crime novels were seeing was "the end of the British 'cosy'. Crime writing is moving up-market and become more international."

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