Ray Banks’ Dead Money is told from the perspective of Alan Slater, a Manchester double-glazing salesman with a wife, mistress, problems of both the gambling and drinking varieties, and an absolute shit-heel for a best friend in Les Beale. Compared to the ex-cons that lead his other novels and novellas, Slater might at first seem like the most “normal” protagonist Banks has yet to give us, but as Dead Money goes along, he reveals himself to be more fucked up than we could ever have imagined.
The novel starts out with scenes of him hitting up the casinos and pubs with Beale, Slater looking out for his violent, raging friend and former mentor as the drunken asshole gets himself into one scrap after another. Then, on a night where Slater doesn’t chaperone him, Beale gets involved in a rigged poker game that turns bloody, and now it’s up to Slater to help him out of the jam. His plate already full with his shaky job, neglected wife and needy girlfriend, Slater doesn’t need cops, gangsters and an increasingly erratic Beale heaped on top of it.
Like an early Jason Starr novel, Dead Money brings us into the head of a seemingly solid-enough working-stiff then slowly shows how deluded and amoral that person can be. We initially think that Slater is maybe a bit of a prick but deep down just a regular guy going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Later we watch him do one horrible thing after another, with the transgressions getting more unthinkable as we go along, and realize that hardly any of his bad deeds mean shit to Slater, the guy being clearly something of a sociopath. The slyest joke (and most disturbing aspect) of the novel for the Nerd was how harshly Slater judges others while all the while thinking he’s got his shit in check.
This being a Ray Banks novel, Dead Money doesn’t beat you over the head with any of this shit, Banks instead keeping the prose direct but the themes low-key. Shit isn’t all doom and gloom neither, as Banks keeps the funny (and reliably fucking swear-y) lines coming with some nutso gambling slang peppered about to boot. And while you can never spot the scaffolding around this potently organic plot (mixing the living shit outta my metaphors here), the pace is always lively as all hell.
Dead Money is dark, nasty, funny, and painfully human shit. Banks never spares his protagonist or his audience, managing to be undeniably noir but in a less-heightened, more realistic way than we see in hardly any one else’s novels. Dead Money is a soot-covered, blood-stained invitation to his world and work, and you, dear reader, should RSVP toot-fucking-sweet.