Having just read one of his latest stories (the excellent Resume Speed), I wanted to go back and read some of Lawrence Block’s older works—kind of a “from the archives” comparison of how Block has grown as an author. I picked the Hard Case volume Borderline, which turned out to be a perfect pick from that criteria; Borderline collects two short novels and a pair of short stories from Block’s early days. Block started writing in 1957, making a living by selling short stories to crime/adventure magazines and churning out sleazy novels for the pulp paperback industry, a path many other authors followed in that era (including fellow mystery grandmaster Donald Westlake, and award-winning SF author Robert Silverberg).
The main entry here is the short novel Border Lust, published in 1962 by Nightstand Books under the pseudonym Don Holliday. It’s a portrait of various noir-type characters living in the steamy, sleazy underbelly of society, the borderline between El Paso and Juarez. Marty is a lone-wolf gambler who lives in the twin cities’ many shadows; Meg is a bored Chicagoite divorcee looking to live again after a loveless marriage; Lily is a beautiful blonde hitchhiker, looking for thrills and drugs and sex and willing to pay to get what she needs; Weaver is a madman with a straight razor in his pocket, living out his own twisted fantasies generated by his obsession with violent horror comics. The novel follows these characters as they cross paths and intersect, bouncing off each other like pinballs, following their hopes and desires into a fiery conclusion.
Border Lust is raw and gritty—a lot more than the other Hard Case volumes I’ve read—not because of its lurid content but because that lurid sex revolves around sexual violence. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading, with graphic sex scenes and general brutalization of women; Lily disconnects and apathetically whores herself to get a fast buck or a car ride, while other women are raped and tortured to death by the sadistic Weaver. When you realize that this lurid violence was marketed as shocking titillation fifty years ago—that this was something for average joes to keep in their nightstand and jack off to—it’s kind of a marker for how far society has progressed. Block’s writing is fine, and his on-point characterization leads to well-defined and interesting characters, but it’s hard to stay engaged with a novel that prioritizes shock appeal over story.
In the middle are two short stories—I didn’t know this book was a collection and was a bit surprised when Border Lust ended. The first short piece is “The Burning Fury” from the Feb. 1959 issue of Off Beat Detective Stories, about an anti-social lumberjack cooling his heels at the bar and the woman who thinks he looks lonely and could use some company tonight. The moral is “don’t talk to strangers,” or perhaps “let sleeping dogs lie,” the twist ending making this one another shocking little tale. “A Fire at Night” is from the Jun. 1958 issue of Manhunt, about a firebug who watches his arson burn against the night sky as firemen attempt to beat back the blaze; it has the “twist ending” that you’re used to by now if you’ve read a lot of 1950s magazine fiction.
The last story is a novella/novelette, “Stag Party Girl,” from the Feb 1963 issue of Man’s Magazine. If you can’t tell from the title, that was one of those men’s adventure magazines, but this story falls into the private investigator mold. A private eye is hired to watch over a businessman on his wedding night who’s been getting death threats from his ex-mistress. During the bachelor party, the groom is surprised when said mistress is the stripper who emerges from the cake—and everyone else is surprised when she’s shot in the chest. Nobody saw the shooter; the police put the groom as prime suspect, though he claims innocence and the PI believes him, and our detective protagonist sets out to untangle the truth. Overall a solid read that keeps you guessing up until the end.
Block’s always been a talented writer, and you can see elements in his early writing that are still a part of his later honed craft and polished style. But if you couldn’t tell, I wasn’t a big fan of Borderline, easily my least favorite Hard Case Crime book; the book’s core is just dated kinky kicks that did not age well. “Stag Party Girl” was the best part, which even then manages to hit every typical Private Eye trope in one short go. I was expecting a fun retro read like Block and Hard Case have delivered before (see Lucky at Cards, Killing Castro, or Girl with the Long Green Heart), but didn’t find these ratty old tales of misogyny much fun—I guess there are some old books that aren’t worth saving. The next time you hear someone complain that today’s society has too much sex and violence, feel free to direct them to this side of the 1950s-60s that were conveniently hidden from them.
Editor: Lawrence Block
First Published: 1958, 1959, 1962 and 1963
What I Read: Hard Case Crime ebook
Price I Paid: $2.99 (Kindle sale)
MSRP: $9.95 pb / $9.95 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 178116777X / B00GVZJVLW