Written by Lawrence Block — If you’re not familiar with Lawrence Block’s work – and you should be, we’ve reviewed a whole stack of it here at Crime Fiction Lover – all I can say is be prepared. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The four stories in this collection – two novellas bookended by two short stories – are forgotten works from the beginning of Block’s career writing for pulp magazines. For an idea of how far his career has come, and how much respect he’s gained in the world of crime fiction, check out the three pages of glowing reviews of his work that kick off this book. They’re not just from reviewers, but also from crime fiction giants such as Elmore Leonard, James M Cain and Stephen King, who all praise Block’s tight, tense style and mastery of the art of the thriller.
The title story, and by far the longest in the collection, centres around five drifters straddling the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez in Mexico – now infamously known as the homicide capital of the world. Marty is a gambler, a winner, living in El Paso but playing poker in Juarez, where the police don’t worry too much about a little illegal gambling. Meg is a divorcee looking for something different, some fun. Lily is a teenage runaway, selling her body to get where she wants to be. In Juarez she meets Cassie, a redheaded lesbian who wants Lily in her sex show. Rounding out this gathering of weirdos is Weaver – a loser with greasy hair and a nose like a pimple, who killed a girl in Tulsa and now wants to kill again. And again. And again.
In the 150 pages of the novella these five characters cross the border more than 20 times, usually running towards something, rather than away. They’re looking for the same four things: sex, murder, money, and alcohol. And the border is the right places for them to find it.
Block’s writing is filled with a kind of energy, an animal-like sensuality that leaves nothing unnecessary in. It is equal parts disgusting and exhilarating, a true artefact of the pulp detective magazines Block wrote for in the early part of his career.
The two shorter pieces are published short stories from the late 1950s. The first is about a lumberjack drinking his demons away, while in the second we have an arsonist who prefers to burn them. Block’s work shows a terrifying insight into the minds of the lowest of the low, the evil in every town, not just the ones on the border.
Finally there’s Stag Party Girl, which displays another side to the author. It’s a private eye story with a difference. Mark Donahue, New York ad man soon to be married, hires private investigator Ed London to be his bodyguard in the week before his wedding. An old mistress has been phoning him, threatening to kill him. When the mistress pops out of a cake at Donahue’s stag party, and someone shoots her through the chest, Ed must find out who really killed the woman. While he’s looking for the answer he also finds a lot more about Madison Avenue’s finest, and the women they attract. It’s Mad Men, Lawrence Block style.
Saying there’s too much violence in these stories is a little like telling grass off for being too green. However, in some cases the extreme physical and sexual violence does seem too casual, and unnecessary. Those familiar with Block’s work and the kinds of fiction published in 1960s men’s magazines will know what to expect; those less inclined to crime fiction that’s dripping with blood, sex and violence might want to steer clear.
Together, this a strong and varied collection and overall I’m glad Hard Case Crime dug them up and stuck a nice pulp cover on them. The jacket is the work of Michael Koelsch, who also did the cover for the reissue of James M Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress. All four stories offer an insight into Block’s early career, and this collection is a must-read for both established fans and those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of being introduced to Block’s work.
Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars