Borderline

Posted: April 29, 2016 in Book reviews
Tags: ,

By Lawrence Block

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I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Block for a long time, since I first borrowed his books from the library way back in the 20th Century. I especially like his novels focusing on alcoholic ex-cop Matt Scudder. In addition his book ‘Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print’ has long been my go to writing manual, and as is often the case such books tend to venture into territory that’s autobiographical at times (see also Stephen King’s On Writing). In his book Block talks about his early days as a writer, where he wrote all manner of things including soft core porn and sex manuals! As such it was interesting to read a book, newly reprinted “for the first time in 50 years”, from his early years, featuring a novel plus three short stories from the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Borderline was originally published in the early 1960s under the pseudonym Don Holliday. There are four main characters whose lives intersect as they cross between the towns of El Paso in Texas and Juarez in Mexico.

Marty is a professional gambler, Meg is a recent divorcee looking for excitement, Lily is a young hippy lured into performing in sex shows, and then there’s Weaver, an ugly man with an ugly soul and a straight razor he plans to use on as many women as he can before the police catch him. There’s Cassie too, the woman who lures Lily into the sex shows, but the story doesn’t focus as much on her as the others.

The first thing to say is that anyone expecting modern Block might be disappointed. Borderlines is the very definition of pulp fiction; nasty, lurid and exploitative and it won’t be for everyone. None of the characters in the book are particularly likeable and much of the violence is brutal, and is pretty much all directed towards the women.  When first published it was titled Border Lust, and there’s as much sex as there is violence and given this was first published in less enlightened times much of it would have been described back then as “abnormal”. So there is a lot of lesbian sex here, and a lot of titillation. It’s to Block’s credit that, for the time and given the type of story he was writing, he treats his female characters well, even though they’re all essentially victims.

This is a story about the crossing of lines, with the physical border between El Paso and Juarez serving as a metaphor for less tangible lines. So Meg crosses lines with her regard to her sexuality just as Weaver crosses moral lines as his fantasies become horrifying reality. As an interesting aside; whilst reading this book I had cause to re-watch Scicario which features the border between El Paso and Juarez and things have clearly changed a lot!

Initially at least I rather enjoyed Borderlines, even back then Block’s prose was perky and his pacing top notch, and he can make even unlikeable characters engaging. The book was an exciting read to begin with, however the further I got into it the less I liked it. What began as a guilty pleasure too quickly devolved into something that just left me feeling guilty. There’s a little too much exploitation and I wonder if even Block had had enough whilst writing it because it suddenly speeds to a conclusion that manages to be both satisfying and deeply unsatisfying at the same time.

The short stories are of variable quality. The Burning Fury is the story of a lumberjack slowly getting wasted in a bar as he tries to ignore the advances of a lady of the night. It’s well written but I could tell where it was headed right from the start. A Fire at Night is a tale about an arsonist admiring his fiery handiwork. It’s probably the weakest story in the collection, although I have to admit the ending did at least catch me by surprise.

This leaves Stag Party Gal, which is more novella than short story and is probably the most enjoyable story within the book.  Mark Donahue is about to marry a society dame, the only trouble is that Karen, a woman he had been seeing, has been calling him up threatening to make trouble for him. As such he hires gumshoe Ed London to watch his back until he can get to the church on time.

Everything’s going swimmingly until the night of Mark’s bachelor party when Karen pops out of the cake and is promptly shot dead. Mark is arrested for her murder and it’s up to Ed to clear his name.

On the surface Stag Party Gal is a fairly generic detective story, and I recall even Block admitting that London wasn’t one of his better creations (his main defining character trait is that he smokes a pipe!) and yet it’s a thoroughly engaging story, and even though it’s an early Block P.I. tale, and even though London isn’t a patch on Scudder, it’s very easy to see the proto-Scudder within the prose. London basically solves the case by talking and re-talking to various people until something shakes lose, which is basically what Scudder does (and as Ian Rankin some of these stories are quite brutalnoted in the notes to his first Rebus book, Scudder and his modus operandi provide more than a little inspiration for Rebus).

There is sex and there is violence, but it’s a far tamer story than Borderlines. Yes the men are all portrayed as two timing weasels and the girls are all tarts (with and without hearts of gold) and yet somehow they all grow beyond their initial characterisation, and if not fully realised they’re more than cardboard cut-outs. The eventual solution is a little limp, but mystery stories rarely live up to their premises. What I can say is that if I was going to read any story in this collection again it’d likely be this one.

So overall these stories are very much a product of the time they were written. If you’ve never read Block before I wouldn’t recommend these as a starting point, and even if you have read Block before I would stress that some of these stories are quite brutal, though the Scudder series in particular treads similar ground, particularly when it comes to violence, with time Block has learned to use violence more sparingly than it is here.

As an example of a top draw writer in his early days these stories are fascinating, and it’s amazing to think that block was writing things of this quality in his early twenties. Frankly I’m more than a little jealous, I’d barely graduated beyond writing lurid post-apocalyptic action stories in long hand by that point…

 

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Comments
  1. […] I’ve never been as much of a fan of the Bernie Rhodenbarr books as I am of the Matt Scudder ones, but a Block novel I haven’t read is always a pleasure, and it always pleases me that Block can write cosy crime capers as surely as he can gritty violent pulp, and certainly this is a world away from the last book of his I read just a few months ago. […]

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