Sunday, April 11, 2021

Lawrence Block's Borderline

Lawrence Block is a much-admired contemporary mystery writer but since I have virtually no interest in contemporary fiction I must confess that I’m not at all familiar with his work. Borderline (re-issued by Hard Case Crime a few years ago) is from very very early in his career. It was originally published in 1962 under the pseudonym Don Holliday and with the much more lurid title Border Lust.

Borderline is either a sleaze novel with significant noir fiction overtones or a noir novel with signifiant sleaze overtones. At this stage of his career Block was supporting himself by writing sleaze fiction in huge quantities while trying to make a name for himself as a crime writer. Borderline seems to be a transitional work - Block is still writing for the sleaze market but he’s trying to find his voice as a serious crime writer as well.

The action of the novel takes place partly in El Paso and partly just across the Mexican border in Juarez. The characters cross back and forth between the two countries and they cross lots of other borders as well - the border between sanity and madness, between self-control and debauchery, between order and chaos.

Although there’s a serial killer in the novel it’s not really a serial killer story as such. He’s just one of a bunch of people whose lives intersect. There’s Marty, a professional gambler. There’s Meg, newly divorced and looking to celebrate her freedom. There’s Lily, a drifter on the make. There’s Cassie, a lesbian hooker. And then there’s Weaver, a loser who has finally discovered his purpose in life. That purpose is to kill.

Marty and Meg hook up and have a lot of fun together, especially in bed. Lily and Cassie hook up as well, which is fun for Cassie but a real drag for Lily. Lily just wants money. She doesn’t mind being a whore but she doesn’t want to be a cheap whore in Juarez. Her dream is to be an expensive whore in New York City but she’ll need a stake to realise her ambitions.

Marty gambles, with mixed success. Meg gambles, with a lot of success. They all have lots of sex. Nobody falls in love. These are not people who are capable of love. They live for pleasure, or at least they think they do. You’ll go a long way to find a more empty group of people.

This is of course the problem with a lot of noir fiction - a lack of characters with whom the reader can empathise. This doesn’t seem to bother some readers who are quite happy to follow the misadventures and tragedies of totally repellant characters. Personally I prefer characters who have at least some redeeming qualities or some depth. I seem to have trouble caring about the fates of characters who are entirely vacuous or entirely lacking in positive qualities. But that’s a matter of personal taste.

There’s also the problem with some noir fiction of an excessively nihilistic tone. Of course noir fiction is meant to be bleak and pessimistic (otherwise they wouldn’t call it noir fiction) but total nihilism is something else again. And this is a pretty nihilistic book.

It is a well-written book and pretty well structured (considering the author’s youth) without too much reliance on coincidence. There’s a certain inevitability about the events.

There’s no mystery here. There is perhaps some suspense although it’s undercut by the air of inevitability.

The sexual content is very tame by later standards but pretty racy by the standards of 1962. The violence is also fairly extreme at times, again by the standards of 1962.

With this book it all comes down to personal taste. Sleaze fans at the time would have been satisfied. Hardcore noir fans today will find much to admire. It left me a bit cold, for reasons I’ve already explained. All I can really say is that Borderline is recommended for those whose tastes run that way.

The Hard Case Crime edition also includes two short stories and a novella written by Block at around the same time. A Fire at Night (from 1958) is an OK story about an arsonist. The Burning Fury (from 1959) is about a man who knows he shouldn’t pick up this girl, he’ll do anything not to, but he does anyway. It’s also OK. 

More interesting is the 1963 novella Stag Party Girl. Despite the title is a relatively straightforward private eye whodunit story. A prospective bride-groom has been getting death threats from an old girlfriend so he hires PI Ed London as a bodyguard. There’s a stag party, a girl who jumps out of a wedding cake, and then a gunshot. ED’s client is the obvious suspect but Ed’s not buying that. He does some actual detecting, there are multiple plausible suspects, some decent red herrings and a fairy satisfying conclusion. It’s moderately hardboiled but not sleazy. I actually liked it a lot more than Borderline, maybe because it lacks Borderline’s nihilism.

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