Monday, February 13, 2023

Lawrence Block's Born To Be Bad

Born To Be Bad, published in 1959, is one of the numerous sleaze novels Lawrence Block wrote using the pseudonym Sheldon Lord. This was long before Block established himself as a major crime writer.

This is the story of Rita Morales. Rita is Cuban. She lives in a dump in Miami with her mother and her five brothers and sisters. They all live in one room. Rita is fifteen. Her mother Carmen is a whore, but not a very successful one. Rita is fed up. She wants to make something of herself. She figures she’ll have to go to New York to make it. She’ll need money to do that. She thinks Pardo, a small-time grifter, might give her fifty dollars if she sleeps with him. She doesn’t consider that sleeping with Pardo for money would be prostitution. She’s not a whore like her mother. This is just a business transaction. Rita has a real talent for rationalising things.

In New York she’s going to need a job. She’s already found a friend, Lucia. Lucia tells her that show business is her best option. With Rita’s breathtaking body she could easily get a job in the chorus. A strip club would be a good place to start. Rita gets a job at the Cinderella Club. She seals the deal by sleeping with the manager of the club, a sleazebag named Finch. But Rita is not a prostitute. It’s just a business transaction.

Rita gets on well with Lucia but Lucia puzzles her. Lucia has pornographic pictures plastered all over the walls of her room at the rooming house. And Lucia sometimes looks at Rita in a funny way. She looks at Rita’s body in a funny way.

Rita is making a hundred dollars a week but she wants a lot more out of life than that. She’s started to figure that marrying a rich guy would be a good long-term plan. In the meantime she wants Annie Cross’s job. Annie is the specialty act at the club. She’s a contortionist. Rita comes up with a routine that makes every other act at the club look tame. Now Rita is making $150 a week.

Rita thinks she’s found the guy she wants to marry. She doesn’t love him but she will be a good wife to him and he looks like he’s going to be a big success in advertising. Her highest ambition now is to have a nice little place in Connecticut.

Rita has things planned out but a number of things happen that seem destined to bring her dreams crashing to the ground.

Sleaze fiction overlapped in a major way with noir fiction. Born To Be Bad isn’t noir but it has a few noir touches.

It is of course very very tame by later standards. It has a bit of an erotic kick at times but this most definitely is not a book that could by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as pornographic.

One of the great things about the sleaze fiction of the 50s and 60s is that it’s not an actual genre. It doesn’t have genre rules and conventions the way westerns or science fiction or the detective stories of the golden age have. To have a career as a sleaze writer all you needed to do was to write books with the necessary amount of sexual content - enough to titillate readers but not so much that you were going to get into trouble with society’s moral watchdogs. If you got that balance write you could pretty much write whatever you wanted. Some sleaze fiction is in fact pure noir fiction. Some is crime fiction, or includes some crime content. Some sleaze novels are melodramas or sexy romances. You never know what you’re going to get.

And you never know if you’re going to get a downbeat ending or an upbeat ending. The publishers didn’t seem to mind either way. Sometimes sleaze novels that seem to be heading for happy endings actually deliver tragic endings. In other cases a character who seems destined for destruction finds not just redemption but happiness. Again, you never know what to expect. Block throws in some very unexpected plot twists in this novel.

A lot of the writers of sleaze novels also happened to be extremely good writers. Some went on to glittering careers in more respectable genres. Even those who never broke out of the sleaze ghetto, writers like Orrie Hitt, were often quite capable writers.

Judging by other Sheldon Lord books I’ve read I’d say that Block used sleaze fiction as a way of exploring the complexities of human relationships (both emotional and sexual). I know that sounds like a pretentious claim to make about books that were considered at the time to be pornographic but remember that Block went on to be a very accomplished and admired writer. His sleaze novels were written quickly for money but when you’re a good writer you just can’t help yourself - you end up writing good books.

Born To Be Bad is a slightly noirish melodrama that deals with human relationships in an honest and grown-up way. Rita is an intriguing character. At times you’re horrified by her while at other times you find yourself being very sympathetic to her. She’s complicated.

Born To Be Bad is also a very entertaining story. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed another novel Block wrote as Sheldon Lord, Kept. It’s interesting because it’s basically a romance with a bit more sex than you’d have found in the average romance novel of that era. It’s worth reading as well.

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