Borderline by Lawrence Block is a hard-boiled thriller, originally published in 1962 and now available for the first time in 50 years, about the intertwining lives of a handful of people on the Mexican-American border as they encounter sex, drugs, and a serial killer (available May 20, 2014).
Before cracking the first page of Borderline—which was called Border Lust when it was originally published in 1962, under one of its young author’s many pseudonyms: Don Holliday—I told myself, “This is not a book by Lawrence Block. This is an early ‘60s paperback original by a writer you’ve never heard of before, and you’re reading it because it was suggested to you by one of your noir-loving brethren. Now let’s see what this Holliday guy had going on.”
So, it turns out the fella was a sure hand at penning a hardboiled yarn of the steamy variety. For a noir lover, there’s a lot to like just in the backdrop of the story. The setting is fertile ground for this kind of tale: everything in the book happens on the U.S./Mexico border, the netherworld between El Paso and Juarez. The characters are ideal, too. There are eight or ten players in the story, but ultimately the focus is on four of them: two men (a professional gambler and a psycho killer) and two women (a divorcee out for kicks and a teenage runaway).
None of the four are involved in any kind of usual gainful employment, and the lives of all four eventually become intertwined. The scenes in the book are the right stuff, too. There are hash houses, card games with hard cash on the line, and nightclubs that are more like X-rated evening theatres than drinking establishments. There’s explicit sex involving man on woman, man on man, and especially woman on woman. There’s drinking and pot-smoking. The language is as tough as it should be. The characters are wide open, the women as much as the men. Check out the third-person narrator’s view into the thoughts of the divorcee, Meg, shortly after we’re introduced to her:
Four years of Borden. Four years of marriage, four years that added up to fourteen or fifteen hundred days, and every day the same, except that each was a little more horribly monotonous than the last. Four years of wearing a nightgown to bed because Borden thought it was indecent to sleep in the raw. Four years of making love briefly, and rarely; and four years of on-again off-again, with Borden ready to sleep just as she started to get interested in the game.
A year, perhaps, of running to the bathroom and finishing the job herself. Then three years of not bothering, because Borden had not even managed to arouse her. Three years of cheating now and then; not out of need as much as boredom. Four years of dullness and drabness, of having money without enjoying it, of living, damn it to Hell, with Borden.
. . . She had a cup of coffee and smoked a cigarette with it. El Paso, she thought. And Juarez. Somewhere in one town or the other, there was going to be a little excitement. Somewhere in Texas or Mexico there was going to be a reprieve from the monotony. Call it excitement, or call it something else. It hardly mattered.
Meg finds that excitement, or whatever you want to call it. She has a few different thrill-giving adventures, some of them new experiences for her. And she’s ready for all of it. Listen to this exchange between her and Marty, the gambler, after they meet and prepare for a hook-up:
“Will you hate yourself in the morning?”
“Only if you’re lousy in bed. If you’re good, I’ll love myself in the morning. Let’s go, Marty. ”
Something else I found to like about this guy Holliday is his streetwise hipness. There’s some Beat writer-type narration and dialogue in the book. This aspect of the novel mostly comes out via Lily, the 17-year old reluctant sexpot/drifter who already sees through people like a wise, aged woman. Everybody, male or female, gets turned on by Lily; everybody wants to touch her and have her love on them. Lily usually lets them, whether it means some cash in her pocket or just getting the person to shoot their wad and leave her alone. The following snatches of dialogue are taken from a bar scene. Lily drifts into the place and does some jazzy rapping with the hepcats on hand, one of these people a lesbian who will eventually convince Lily to work with her in a girl-on-girl sex stage act at the place in the later hours. Listen to these people talk:
“Lily Daniels. Out of Denver by North Beach. No money and no friends. This seat wasn’t taken, was it, man?”
“It is, now. Stay as cool as you are, baby.”
. . .
“I been around S.F. You know a cat name of Randy Kapper?”
“Tall, thin cat,” she said. “A cocaine habit.”
“When I knew him he sniffed a little. He hooked now?”
“Through the bag and back again.”
“That’s a bitch,” the scraggly beard said. “He was a nice cat when I knew him. He was padding out with Renee, I don’t know her last name, a big blonde with a fat can. Then she turned around to make a lesbo scene and Randy was all hung up. That’s a bitch, though, him on a coke needle. You never know.”
Holliday didn’t hold back. Even people who like their noir fiction raw might be challenged to handle some of the content in Borderline. When the narrator follows the thoughts and actions of Weaver, the remorseless serial killer who preys on women and prefers his victims to be young, even someone who enjoys the unbridled pages of an Orrie Hitt might find themselves feeling uncomfortable. But whether those parts work for you or make you flip ahead in the book, they let you know you’re reading the work a guy who knew his way around a savagely hardboiled novel. So, yeah, this Holliday guy could write.
If you pick up the new Hard Case Crime edition of Borderline (available May 20, 2014), it comes with an eye-catching cover, as well as some “bonus tracks”: three short stories Block penned in the late ‘50s and that originally appeared in the pages of Offbeat Detective Stories, Manhunt, and Man’s Magazine. The last of the three is more like a novella and is a whodunit that has a Mad Men-ish feel.
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Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.