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Borderline (Hard Case Crime) Paperback – May 20, 2014
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Hard Case Crime continues to resurrect Block’s early work, often written pseudonymously, from the 1950s and early ’60s. Gleefully mixing soft-core pornography with a thriller plot, Block churned out numerous of these bound-for-the-drugstore-paperback-rack quickies as he was gaining his sea legs for the more mature work that would come later. This one makes the most of its seedy border-town setting, jumping between El Paso and Juárez, as the paths of a gambler, divorcée, hitchhiker, stripper, and psycho killer come together in an inevitable bloodbath—but not before a series of steamy, yet surprisingly stylish, couplings (There was a beginning, bittersweet and almost painful. There was a middle, fast and furious, a scherzo movement in a symphony of fire. And there was an ending, gasping, spent, two bodies washed up on a lonely, barren beach.) Who knew what lurked on those paperback racks, nestled beside the sundries, awaiting the hungry eyes of surreptitious readers? And, yet, along with the titillation, Block’s inimitable craftsmanship shines through, along with flashes of his signature wit. --Bill Ott --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"A perfect example of hard-boiled, sexy pulp fiction. In other words, it is fun and keeps you turning pages." - Book Reporter
"This is Lawrence Block at his most unforgiving." - San Francisco Book Review
"A brutal story of sexual passion and bloody punishment." - Retrenders
"This collection is a must-read for both established fans and those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of being introduced to Block’s work." - Crime Fiction Lover
"Entertaining and twisted." - PopCults
"If you like your pulp fiction a bit on the raw side, you may want to make a trip to the Borderline. I’m glad I did." - Professor Mondo
"it’s as raw and visceral as anything you’ll find in bookstores today." - October Country
"Borderline is a visceral punch in the gut. It’s characters play their parts perfectly, rounding out the plot in a crime style that makes for a perfect, quick read. Block once again proves himself to be a Grand Master of mystery." - As The Plot Thins
"An important addition to Block’s library and a must read for his fans." - Book Reporter
“An edgy story pulsing with sex and violence; his wry sense of humor; a sobering sense of devastation; and all-around expertly crafted prose. what else can I say except it's an excellent story, up to Block's high standard.” – Pulp Serenade
“Talk about your page turner. I read this, something I rarely do, in a single sitting just because of its bitter and brutal force. ...you see a great writer busy creating a realm exclusively his own.” – Ed Gorman’s Blog
“Block’s inimitable craftsmanship shines through, along with flashes of his signature wit.” – Booklist
"Packs plenty of vicarious thrills, sexual titillation, and taboo breaking." - Publisher's Weekly
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Borderline, which has now been reissued by Hard Case Crime, was published in 1962 as Border Lust by Don Holliday. The copyright, however, indicates that it was written as early as 1958.
It is wonderful piece of old-fashioned pulp and one of the amazing things about it is that it was written so long ago. It combines many of the risqué elements of Block's early writings in the dimestore paperback industry with the mystery elements of his later writings. Here, you have hippie hitchikers, professional gamblers, divorced housewives out to experience life for the first time, and a serial killer stalking and mutilating his prey. Block takes the reader into an amazing journey, first focusing on one of these people and then on the next and weaving them into this tale.
The setting for the story is the border between El Paso and Cuidad Juarez, which even back then fifty years ago was a lawless frontier where anything goes. Americans would cross the border to gamble, to watch shows, to drink, and do anything else that was for sale and just about anything was for sale. The book is not so much about a complex story as about the atmosphere and characterizations that Block develops of these individuals whose paths cross as they try to escape their mundane lives and find freedom in the excesses of the border towns.
Marty is the professional gambler. He lives in El Paso and gambles across the border, stopping each morning for breakfast in a greasy spoon, where he eyes Betty who every trucker in the place has his eyes on. She warms up to him and suddenly her "eyes were not so washed-out." "The skirt of her uniform hugged her buttocks, and they swayed as she walked." Marty's a gambler and, if he was not good at it, he would have to do something else for a living.
Meg Rector had black hair, "loose and long, trailing down over bare shoulders that were just barely tanned." She ended up in El Paso after spending a week at an expensive hotel in Mexico City waiting for her divorce to be final. While there, she killed a week, talking to no one and staying in her hotel, sipping Beefeater Gin. After four years of boredom being married to Borden, she wanted to live it up. She wanted to blow her top and never stop exploding. She did not even know what excitement she wanted, but she wanted it. "Maybe it meant getting laid or getting drunk or shooting dice or taking dope or driving in a fast car. She hadn't seen any excitement in too long."
Lily had run away at sixteen or seventeen, ended up in San Francisco and left there when her boyfriend's buddy robbed a place and they had to split. "She was seventeen. Her face looked about two years younger than that until you saw her eyes, which looked twenty-five. Her figure was petite but perfect." She had aged that year in San Francisco and had become cold and hard inside. And then, when they got to Dallas, her boyfriend and his friend had sold her to a Texan for a hundred dollars and split, leaving her to get beaten and abused and left penniless to hitchhike. Lilly knew some people in Mexico City and figured she could try to get with them if she could manage to get up a stake.
Cassie is a stripper that Lily meets in a Mexican bar. Between shots of tequila, redheaded Cassie convinces Lily to join her in an all-girl floor show in a Mexican brothel, a show so intoxicating that Meg practically loses her mind watching it.
Then there was Michael Patrick Weaver, man who was short, wiry, and ugly, with pig eyes, "beady pig eyes." He wore his hair combed down across his forehead in unconscious imitation of Hitler. He had liked to wander the streets of Tulsa at night as a peeping tom until he got caught and beaten. Then, he stumbled across a young girl out at night and, excited by a vampire movie, grabbed her, knocked out three of her front teeth, attacking her, and ripping her apart with his teeth. While he violated her, his teeth found her throat. The descriptions of Weaver's brutal, sadistic attacks on his poor victims leave little to the imagination.
All these people meet in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez and the story details their journey as they let loose and either live out fantasies or struggle to survive. It is a quick reading dimestore pulp read. It is not for the faint of heart and is rather risqué, adult faire. A worthwhile addition to the Hard Case Crime series, indeed.
About one-third of the volume is taken up with short stories in addition to the feature-length novel. Who knew Block wrote shorts? Well, most writers start out getting shorts published in whatever magazine will take them and Block was no stranger to the pulp magazine world in the fifties.
The Burning Fury was originally published in the February 1959 issue of Off Beat Detective Stories. On the surface, it is merely a folksy down-home tale of a miserably unhappy lumberjack taking a drink in a bar. Oh, but it is so much more than that. There is atmosphere and characterization here that is simply outstanding. The lumberjack who never gets named once had bright polished boots, but now they were dingy brown, scuffed, and battered -just like him. He tosses down shots of rotgut rye and wonders how much of the slop he would need to pour down his gullet that night. He drank till he dropped on his days off, but not when he was working because when he was working, there was "nothing to forget, no memories to grab him around the neck, no hungers to make him want to reach out and swing at somebody." But, as he sits in the bar, he explains that he knew it would be bad the minute she walked in through the door. He saw the shape of her body, the color of her hair, the look in her eyes, and knew that it was going to be one hell of a night. Her "dark green skirt was tight, and it did things to the other half of her body. He looked at her and the ball of fire in his mind burned hotter and brighter every second." Wow! Whatever is going on here, Block has set the stage in a full-on noir fashion. Drinking and femme fatales and hell on earth. It is going to be one hell of a story
A Fire At Night was originally published in Manhunt in 1958. It's a short tale about a firebug.
Stag Party Gal was originally published in the February 1963 issue of Man's Magazine. It has an interesting, attention-getting title and it's long for a short. In fact, at eleven chapters, it's long enough to be worth a read in its own right. Ed is hired by a client who is getting married in a few days, but the client has been getting calls from the mistress he dropped a few weeks earlier, threatening calls. Ed agrees to hang around as a bodyguard and attends the bachelor party. Lo and behold, Karen jumps out of a giant cake, naked as the day she was born and, when all eyes are on her, someone guns her down. Ed then sets out to solve the mystery and absolve his client from blame. The plot itself is typical of fifties era pulp, but what makes this worth reading is how solidly hardboiled the writing is.
"Even at that ghastly hour," he explains, "she looked like a toothpaste ad. Her hair was blonde silk and her eyes were blue jewels and her skin was creamed perfection." She could have been a vogue model, but "the body was just too bountiful." That's the fiancé who sits in Ed's apartment making coy comments and having the equipment to carry it off.
If you enjoy reading fifties era pulp like Frank Kane or Richard Prather, you'll get a kick out of this bonus tale.
Crime writer Lawrence Block weaves these lives back and forth, in and out of each other, crisscrossing them until the reader cannot be sure where their life-lines are going. And when Block brings it all together, the climax is shattering. This is crime noir at its strongest, characters so driven by dark desires that they have no idea to what fate they are being driven, and when destiny catches up with them, they are more surprised than anyone at the results. The novel paints a bleak picture of two towns shrouded in moral darkness, a landscape dotted with cheap nightclubs, greasy diners lit by flickering neon, and flophouses where $2 a night is overcharging.
This edition from Hard Case Crime is rounded out by the inclusion of two short stories and a novella from pulps of the late Fifties. The first is "The Burning Fury," a dark character study of a brute whose desires are at odds with the mores of society. "A Fire at Night" is another study in shadows, this time about a fire-bug, a tightly written story with a twist in the final sentence that is as shattering as it is revealing. The final tale in the book, "Stag Party Girl," is a straightforward detective story with private investigator Ed London, a hard-boiled gumshoe who appeared in one one novel and a handful of shorter works. London is hired as a bodyguard for a man who is threatened by a former girlfriend, who must then be defended when the ex gets shot after jumping out a wedding cake at a stag party; when the client turns up an apparent suicide, it's up to London to decide whether to step aside or play avenging angel without pay.
All four stories are excellent examples of Block's early writing, when he was still developing his narrative voice. "Borderline" and the two short short stories are more alike in tone than they are different, and will certainly appeal to the fan of crime noir not too squeamish about raw sex and explicit violence. If those three tales are round pegs fitting into round holes, then "Stag Party Girl" is the square peg of the lot, the one you point to when someone asks, "Which of these is not like the others?" For all that, though, it is the cleverest of the four, perhaps the best written, and has just enough of a noir touch to appeal to fans of the genre.
The cover is graced by another original painting commissioned by Hard Case Crime, this time by Michael Koelsch, which wonderfully captures a border town drenched in lust and violence, lit by the fires of unleashed passions. If there are drawbacks to this book, it is the lack of an afterword to put the tales and period into perspective with Block's career, and the several typos overlooked by HCC's copy editor, not something that is usually found in an HCC edition. All in all, though, "Borderline" is required reading for every fan of crime noir and Lawrence Block.