Lawrence Block is one of the country's best-known and successful mystery and crime novelists (8 Million Ways to Die, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart). He has created memorable characters like the hard-boiled detective Matthew Scudder and the charming burglar-turned-bookseller (and crime solver) Bernie Rhodenbarr. But many of his most ardent admirers may not know that Block started his writing career in the pulp field, frequently using pseudonyms to churn out stories mixing crime and sex. Hard Case Crime has been reissuing these lost dimestore novels, now under Block's name, and the latest, Borderline, is a doozy. Originally published in 1962 (but according to the book's copyright may have been written as early as 1958) as Border Lust by Don Holliday, Borderline centers around four people who all converge on the U.S./Mexico border, with tragic results.
The characters in Borderline are:
Marty, a professional gambler who lives in El Paso, but plays poker most often over the border in seedy Juarez, where anything can be had for the right amount of cash.
Meg, a recent divorcée, who is fond of gin and looking for thrills.
Lily, a teen who has been used and abused by a boyfriend and is left to find her way on her own, using the only commodity she has, her body.
Weaver, a demented killer who while hiding out in El Paso realizes that he'd like to go out in a blaze of glory, and take along as many victims with him in his wake as he can.
Block is such a good writer, even this early in the game, the story moves along so quickly, that it might be quite a while before the reader realizes that none of the characters are particularly likable. The sex is deliberately sleazy, and the closest thing Borderline has to a protagonist, Marty, is revealed to be a misogynistic jerk. But it is hard not to appreciate Block's economic prose and deft character sketches, even in the service of such a downbeat story as this one.
Readers may feel rewarded, and even cleansed, by the addition of three short stories in the volume:
"The Burning Fury" - Originally published in the February 1959 issue of Off Beat Detective Stories, the story centers around a lumberjack who just wants to be alone. But a blonde beauty enters a bar where he is quietly trying to drink himself into oblivion one evening and both he and the reader know that their encounter can only lead to trouble.
"A Fire At Night" - Originally published in 1958 in Manhunt, the story is told from the perspective of a pyromaniac, and is equal parts clever and creepy.
"Stag Party Gal" - Originally published in the February 1963 issue of Man's Magazine, this is the best of the bunch (including Borderline). Here is the Lawrence Block readers have come to know and love. Main character Ed London, a "private cop," could be an early sketch of Matt Scudder. Ed is hired to protect Mark Donahue, who is about to be married, and fears some form of violent retribution from a former mistress. When the girl in question jumps out of a cake and moments later turns up dead at his client's stag party, Ed must determine whether Mark or any of the other men were involved. He meets some gorgeous gals, and has to sort out another murder along the way, as he tracks down the real killer.
Borderline and its accompanying short stories are a time capsule of what publisher's thought would excite the American male in the late '50s/early '60s. The girls are all very busty and aiming to please, and the men are hardly PC in their behavior. It must have been quite risqué at the time to include gay characters, both male and female. Pornography is so readily available these days that it is hard to imagine the role books like Borderline played in many lives, brown paper wrapping and all. But it does show what a training ground pulp fiction played for such a good and prolific writer as Lawrence Block.