I’m not — on the contrary, I’m cooking fries for the Spawn here in Mondoville. However, El Paso and its cross-border twin of Juarez happen to be the setting for Borderline, a “new old book” from our friend Lawrence Block. The book was originally published about fifty years ago, and has joined the ranks of several other older books of his that have been reissued by Hard Case Crime. My copy showed up in today’s mail, and I finished it just before I started the fries. It’s a good thing I had finished it — if I hadn’t, then the Spawn would have had to wait longer for dinner.
Borders, of course, are a type of intersection, and the novel is an account of four-and-a-half lives that intersect at this particular frontier somewhere around the late Fifties/early Sixties. The four primary characters are professional gambler Marty, thrill-seeking divorcee Meg, an itinerant beatnik girl named Lily, and a serial killer named Weaver. (The half-life goes to Cassie, a lesbian sex worker who is involved with Lily.) In some ways, Meg may be the closest thing to a traditional protagonist the novel has, as she makes journeys of personal and sexual self-discovery through the course of the book. Marty is a far more typical noir antihero, reminiscent in some ways of Westlake’s Parker, if perhaps less of a high achiever. Lily makes a fine sort of trapdoor spider, coldly happy to exploit anyone who comes along for money and kicks.
And Weaver… Weaver interests me. The killer’s motivations are clear, and I suspect even sort of sympathetic for that era. He’s a nebbish-turned-monster, in some ways presaging the sort of glory killers we see in a lot of fiction these days. I think he’s rather ahead of his time. He comes to some realizations about himself along the way as well — and becomes something perhaps a bit more real than the slavering maniac killer of cliche.
I’m not sure whether or not this one was a Nightstand original — the date of publication suggests so — but it certainly could have been. There’s plenty of sex in various combinations and permutations, and one can certainly suspect the original audience may have read the book one-handed. Still, the characters aren’t simply intersections of meat and hormones; we see some genuine emotion from time to time along with the friendly — or hostile — exercise.
The book is considerably more raw than a lot of LB’s later work. Violence is described nearly as graphically as the sex — and while Block has never made a habit of putting the violence offscreen (he’s not writing cozies, after all), I don’t think it’s usually as intense or gory as it is here. Finally, the book’s pacing is interesting, specifically in that the ending is so abrupt (and by the formula’s expectations, startling) that you may need a chiropractor when you finish. I’m not sure how intentional this was; books like this were how he bought groceries, and there were probably length guidelines for the market. Still, it’s effective, and I didn’t see it coming.
Two shorts and a novelette (the last starring private eye Ed London) round out the volume, and one of the shorts I’ve actually used before in a fiction writing class, so obviously I like it as well. So if you like your pulp fiction a bit on the raw side, you may want to make a trip to the Borderline. I’m glad I did.