Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Borderline" by Lawrence Block

Hard Case Crime has done it again. Borderline, an obscure title from Lawrence Block's enormous and ever-growing body of work, is more than just a rare curio—it's a shocking novel from a then twenty-three year old writer. Shocking not only for its risqué content, but also for its maturity and excellence from such a young novelist.

Borderline is about five strangers whose fates explode in a headfirst collision one debauched—and deadly—weekend on the border between El Paso and Juarez. There's the cocksure gambler, looking for a sucker to fleece of his money and pride. There's the female hitchhiker, broke and willing to do anything—with anyone—to get to New York. There's the party girl who's always up to turn a trick, but is looking for a more lasting connection. There's the divorcee looking to rebound from a stale, vanilla marriage with one weekend of unrestrained desire. And there's the serial killer, on the run from the law, but who loves the rush so much he's willing to risk capture again and again in order to get a better high.

Borderline is a fiery example of the burning intensity that fuels Lawrence Block's early writing. Originally published by Nightstand in December 1961 under the title Border Lust, the hallmarks of Block's inimitable style are already present in this early work: an edgy story pulsing with sex and violence; his wry sense of humor; a sobering sense of devastation; and all-around expertly crafted prose. Like an orgiastic cousin to John D. MacDonald's multi-lane car crash novel, Cry Hard, Cry Fast, Block nimbly moves between his ensemble cast of characters. It's a tense pleasure to witness the way he maneuvers their disparate trajectories across the two cities, building suspense until the inevitable moment when all the stories come crashing together.

Fans of Robert Bloch's The Scarf and Fredric Brown's The Lenient Beast and Knock Three-One-Two will take great pleasure in reading the killer's chapters in Borderline. Channeling the spirit and style of his forerunners, blending both glee and dread as he details the psycho's hunt for victims, Block revels in excess to the point of revulsion. But this seems to be the point—the killer is a nasty, brutal, sick-minded person. It's something that Jim Thompson understood well. Block's strength is in his characters and their unflinching, and often unlikable, authenticity. The only character in Borderline that is remotely sympathetic is the divorcee, and that's because she has no pretentions about what she is doing, and because she is the only one not out to harm anyone else. All the other characters are taking advantage of someone somehow. The divorcee is the only one looking for pure pleasure, and not at anyone else's expense, and her frankness and honesty is something that Block clearly admires.

One of the remarkable elements about Borderline, one that raises it above the general level of sleazy fun that Nightstand was publishing, is its subversive intelligence. Readers looking for sex and violence will find plenty in this book—but what starts out as vulgarity soon takes a more serious turn. When one of the characters reads a newspaper article detailing a grisly rape and murder, she is offended by the article's refusal to use the word "rape," and how lightly it takes the crime.

"[The newspaper] said, in a masterpiece of understatement, that the murder victim had been criminally attacked.

"Now wasn't that something? A bizarre euphemism, she thought. Burn a girl's breasts, slash her to ribbons, shear off her fingers and toes, and you have to give her a medical examination to tell that she's been criminally attacked. Say rape, for Christ's sake and to hell with euphemisms. The poor girl had been criminally attacked, all right, whether she was raped or not. How criminal could you get?"

This sort of sensitivity to rape culture is certainly unusual in a sleaze novel (of all places), and it speaks to a distinguishing characteristic of Block's prose throughout his career, which is the real wreckage and human toll of violence. Block's always had a sense of humor (sometimes a wicked one), and he's never been one to preach morality, but his lightness of touch is frequently matched by a sobering depth and maturity that makes his work all the more stirring and affecting to read.

This new Hard Case Crime edition includes three early Block short stories, written around the time of Borderline. The first of them, "The Burning Fury" (Off Beat Detective Stories, February 1959), is the closest in town to Borderline--it's also the most disturbing and, for my money, the best. It's 9 pages of unrestrained nastiness as a man gets drunk and rapes a woman. The destruction and barbarity caused by alcohol has been a running theme through Block's work to this day (see his excellent novel A Drop of the Hard Stuff). It's a shocking story that confronts you with the viciousness of its crime—no punches are pulled in this one, and it might not be for everyone. The next story, "A Fire at Night" (Manhunt, June 1958), is a clever quickie about a pyromaniac watching as firefighters struggle against his latest fiery creation. The final story, "Stag Party Girl" (Man's Magazine, February 1963), is a private eye novelette in which a man is accused of murdering the stripper at his bachelor party, who just happened to be an ex-girlfriend threatening to blackmail him. Here we see a side of Block that will be more familiar to Scudder fans—more intricate plotting and a detection-based narrative. At this point, what else can I say except it's an excellent story, up to Block's high standard.

Hard Case is approaching their 10th anniversary and, coincidentally (or not), their very first book in September 2004 was also by Lawrence Block, the excellent con artist novel Grifter's Game. Here's to another 10 years of great crime fiction with Hard Case Crime and Lawrence Block!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Articles of Note

Two recent articles on crime fiction really impressed me, and I wanted to applaud their authors and call attention to the essays, if you haven't had the pleasure of reading them lately.

First is Dan Luft's essay on Max Allan Collins, "The Nolan Series: Part 1," which appeared over at The Violent World of Parker. Luft examines Collins' series character, the professional thief Nolan, and considers the first three books in the series (Bait Money, Blood Money, and Mourn the Living), Collins' influences, and the pros and cons of each of the novels. Here's a taste:

The first book in Collins’s series, Bait Money, owes its plot and pace to many crime writers of the ’50s and ’60s. It begins with Nolan stuck in a room recuperating from a bullet wound in his side. This could be a nod to Dan J. Marlowe’s The Name of the Game is Death, which Collins had certainly read growing up. The next big scene has Nolan walking alone in the rain sizing up a hired thug that might just be tougher than he is. The ponderous scene plays quite a bit like the opening chapter to Peter Rabe’s The Out is Death. Collins isn’t using just Stark for inspiration, he’s using the generation of crime writers he grew up reading.

It's a supremely badass and well-informed critical essay, very thoughtful and insightful into Collins' work. I'm greatly looking forward to Pt. 2 of Dan's essay.

Second is Ethan Iverson's epic multi-part piece, "I Was Looking for Charles Willeford." Iverson is not only the amazing pianist behind The Bad Plus, but he's one heck of a great noir scholar. If you're a crime fiction fan, you owe it to yourself to browse the backlog of his blog and check out all he has to offer. His latest piece is a three-part investigation into the life and work of Charles Willeford. The first part is "Nothing is Inchoate, or, "When Did You Get Interested in Abused Children, Helen?"" which considers Willeford's novels. Second part is an interview with Willeford biographer Don Herron," which I had the pleasure of helping transcribe this conversation. Part three is an Interview with Ray Banks. If you're like me, after reading these you'll be driven to bust out your Willeford books and re-read them, or to catch up on the ones you still haven't read.

Great work Dan and Ethan, truly a pleasure to read these articles.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

New Noir Film: Sun Don't Shine

Over at Hammer to Nail, I have a review of a terrific new independent film called Sun Don't Shine. A "lovers on the run" story shot on location in and around St. Petersburg, FL, the movie evokes the sweat-soaked panic of Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, Day Keene, and other paperback crime writers who were (coincidentally or not) also based out of St. Petersburg. It's alternately gritty and hazy, violent and ambient, a drunken swirl of emotion, and a perpetual downward spiral of paranoia and distrust.

Just look at that tagline: "Good hearts can do bad things." Can you get more noir than that?

The movie begins with Crystal and Leo fighting on a backroad. The cause of the fight is unknown. Moments later, they get back in the car and hit the road. Tampa is only a few hours away. Leo knows someone with a boat. Crystal is scared. Leo doesn't trust her. The details behind their flight are hazy, but one thing is for certain: they can't turn back now.

This movie is a great example of how neo-noir doesn't have to resort to pastiche. The 16mm photography is beautiful, the cast is terrific, and the story packs a wallop. The movie was directed and written by Amy Seimetz, and it is her first feature film. It has been picked up for distribution by Factory 25, but no release date has been announced. Here's an excerpt from the review, or you can read the whole review here:

Seimetz’s story is something straight out of the vintage noir paperbacks of Harry Whittington, Day Keene, or Gil Brewer—writers who, coincidentally or not, were based in or around St. Petersburg, FL, the hometown of Seimetz and the setting for Sun Don’t Shine. Like those writers before her, Seimetz captures the sweat-stained angst of working class protagonists who lack the means to outrun their past or escape to some future, leaving behind the dreary, sun-drenched rot of the Florida landscape. I don’t know how much of the influence is deliberate or how much is chance—or maybe it’s something in that Florida sunlight—but Seimetz also shares certain stylistic characteristics with those artists. Their narratives alternate between frantic energy and a more anxious lethargy, like a bad panic hangover that just won’t go away. The total effect is a nightmarish haze of paranoia, hysteria, and murder.

Seimetz’s direction suggests an unlikely but complementary fusion of noir and experimental cinema. Think the pulpy mania of Joseph H. Lewis or Anthony Mann mixed with the ethereal, tonal ambiance of James Benning or Terrence Malick. Heightened levels of domestic violence—often exacerbated by the claustrophobic confines of cars or cramped living spaces—alternated with the trance-like repetitiveness of highways and back roads. Nightmare and dreamstate—and nothing in between. Instead of long shots that would establish location and a more complete sense of space, Seimetz prefers medium 2-shots (restricting the world to the two lovers) and extreme close-ups (disembodying them from their surroundings and each other). This insures that Crystal and Leo never feel at home in any space, and that they—like us—are never quite sure where they are.

SUN DON'T SHINE Teaser from David Lowery on Vimeo.

Monday, November 26, 2012

"The Criminal Kind: Bardsley, Piccirilli, and Woods" at The Los Angeles Review of Books

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, my Criminal Kind column continues with reviews of Greg Bardsley's Cash Out, Tom Piccirilli's The Last Kind Words, and Jonathan Woods' A Death in Mexico.

Read the full article here.

Fulfilling all of the promise of Bardsley’s short story “Crazy Larry Smell Bacon” ... Cash Out marks an exciting new entry into the mystery field. Flat-out funny prose that doesn’t resort to parody is a rarity. Bardsley’s clarity and eccentricity should be treasured. Here’s hoping that a follow-up novel isn’t too far around the corner.

If Shadow Season was a turning point for Piccirilli — signaling a maturation of theme and style — then The Last Kind Words marks the start of a major new period in Piccirilli’s oeuvre, and it stands among his finest and most moving works to date.

Jonathan Woods’s debut novel, A Death in Mexico, [is] an outrageous and unruly mescal-soaked murder mystery packed with plenty of euphoric and hallucinogenic highs and none of the regrettable aftereffects. Readers looking for a by-the-books police procedural won’t find anything so straight-laced or conservative in this book; adventurous readers — those willing to drink without first asking what’s in the glass — will savor Woods’s unorthodox mélange of sex and slaughter under the sun.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Samuel Fuller Tribute

Over at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, I have two pieces (more to come) on Samuel Fuller. They were written in conjunction with a screening we are hosting at 92Y Tribeca tonight of Park Row (1952), one of my favorite films of Fuller's films. We have a 35mm print, which makes it all the more exciting for me, because I've only seen it taped off of television. If you happen to be in the NYC area tonight (Saturday, November 24th) around 6PM, drop on by the theater and hang out.

Fuller’s directorial body of work comprises 22 theatrical feature films, 3 made-for-tv features (Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Day of Reckoning, and The Madonna and The Dragon), and numerous television episodes (chiefly Iron Horse, as well as other shows). His first film as director, 1949’s I Shot Jesse James, was a small, independent production whose modest means belied its brazen, daring vision of a ruthless, psychotic West. Fuller challenged the cultural mythology of the West, daring to look beneath the archetype of the Jesse James-Bob Ford legend to uncover the raw emotions and motivations at the heart of their actions. The result was a radical re-visioning of the West filled with characters, ideas, and feelings relatable to modern day audiences. Only one film into his career, and Fuller had defined the facets that would be present throughout his career: politically-charged stories blending philosophy, poetry, and violence. Fuller’s major innovation, and personal invention, was to turn cinema into an editorial. Even his final feature, the 1994 made-for-television movie The Madonna and the Dragon, which is set during the People’s Revolution in the Philippines, exhibits the same reporter’s eye for drama and poetic-politic fusion that defined his career.

Park Row may be a celebration of American journalism, but it is also a celebration of battles fought and won in the past that still must be fought and won in the present, as well as in the future. Through not only the verbal homages to journalism’s grand heroes, but also the juxtaposition of the young boy just beginning his career to the old reporter ending his, Fuller emphasizes the generational aspect of Park Row’s narrative, and the perpetual, never-ending struggle for truth and liberty. Fuller is an American patriot—but his is a harsh form of admiration. His perspective on America is like that of Frank Capra—they manage to be both social critics and optimists at the same time. Capra, for all of his lighthearted flights of fancy, was capable of disturbingly dark moments. And Fuller, for all of his bitter truths about the prevalence of racism and exploitation in society, was still a hopeful American dreamer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Scott Phillips' "Nocturne le vendredi"

It's always thrilling and humbling when someone tells you they dig what you are making. When Scott Phillips told me he not only liked my music (released under the name Modern Silent Cinema), but wanted to use it in a book trailer, I pinched myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. When a pinch failed to wake me up, I reached for the nearest metal baseball bat. Thankfully, there wasn't one within arm's reach, otherwise I might not be around to write this blog post. Anyway, it was a huge honor, and I'm a million times thankful to Scott for his support.

I just got to see the final product today, and I have to say, it's a pretty damn awesome trailer. I'm psyched that I was able to be a part of it! Now, if only I read French, because the novel is coming out in France and it is called Nocturne le vendredi. Here's what Scott had to say about the book on his blog:

It's loosely based on a period in the early nineties when my friend Lane Davies and I were running around Paris trying to raise money for a movie. Lane was the star of a soap opera, "Santa Barbara," that was broadcast with great success during prime time in France, and was such a celebrity there that we were certain we could get this thing made. We didn't but hijinks ensued and when les Éditions la Branche asked me to write something for the series I asked Lane if he'd object to me depicting him as a murdering psychopath (in the novel, things go slightly more haywire than they did in real life).

Can't wait for the English language version -- and, fingers crossed, a screen adaptation!

In the meantime, here's the book trailer. It is in English with French subtitles.

The song is called "The Passion Killer," and you can stream/download it here on my website:

Monday, November 19, 2012

"Unfaithful Wives" by Orrie Hitt (Beacon, 1956)

Unfaithful Wives by Orrie Hitt
Originally published by Beacon, 1956
eBook now available from Prologue Books

Unfaithful Wives is the title of the book, but it is only half of the story. From first page to last, Orrie Hitt’s 1956 novel is awash with adulterous, scheming, backstabbing, dishonest, and dissatisfied lovers of both genders. The book might sound salacious and sleazy—and I’m sure that’s what the publishers wanted—but the story that Hitt delivers is far more brooding. A doom-laden, blue-collar soap opera, Unfaithful Wives is heavy-duty noir on par with David Goodis, Gil Brewer, and the best of the classical masters.

The story is a daisy chain of infidelity centering around “top-flight grocery salesman” Fred Sharpe and his wife, Rita. He’s always on the road for business trips, and she’s stuck at home in rural New Jersey. Both of them are so dissatisfied and desperate that they seek out extra-marital affairs to fulfill the longing in their lives. Their respective lovers, it turns out, are just as philandering and two-timing. Murderous desire is in all of their hearts—and one of them can’t contain it. Soon, Fred and Rita find themselves the focus of a homicide investigation that tests the loyalties of everyone involved.

Hitt was a working class writer, and one of the hallmarks of his style is the way he evokes the blue-collar milieu with such striking and depressing realism. His is the workingman’s noir. No trenchcoats, no fedoras, no gats, roscoes, or bosomy blonde wisecracking secretaries. His characters aren’t Private Eyes. Instead, they’re a traveling salesman like in I’ll Call Every Monday, a “top-flight grocery salesman” like Fred in Unfaithful Wives, a TV repairman in Dial “M” For Man, or some other mundane profession if indeed they’re lucky enough be working (Hitt’s empty wallets ring truer than in most other novles). In Unfaithful Wives, people live in small towns and travel to small cities—there’s nothing “big” anywhere in this world. Even when characters steal money and go on the lam, it’s a paltry $8000—no small sum, even today, but certainly not the stuff that dreams are made of. Which raises a good point: Hitt’s characters don’t dream, or perhaps they have just run out of dreams to hopelessly cling to.

The key noir ingredient to the characters in Unfaithful Wives is that they feel trapped in their current situation. Jobs, marriage, finances, location—they’re all stuck in their same place because of one thing or another. “They weren't going any place. Christ, they didn't have enough money between them to get out of town. They were just a couple of jerks trying to run a dream into overtime.”

Characteristic of Hitt’s novels, Unfaithful Wives presents a character set seemingly living out the conformist American dream but who is, deep down, dissatisfied by such standard morals and traditional lots in life. Much like the contemporaneous Beat generation, Hitt’s characters are sick of the status quo, but unlike those young rebels, Hitt’s characters lack the mobility to change their lives. The people in Unfaithful Wives are old enough to have responsibilities but young enough to feel that their predestined humdrum lives are tantamount to eternal torture and damnation. Just look at the way that Hitt describes Fred and Rita’s marriage:

He didn't know. It was something that worried him, bothered him, ached down inside of him every hour of the day. They ought to be happy and they weren't  They ought to argue and fight the way couples do, but they didn't  He just went out on the road, selling groceries, making a nice living, and when he got finished with a trip he went home and they sat around looking at each other.

They’re so defeated they don’t even fight! Talk about being “down there,” even David Goodis’ lovers had enough spirit left for a good fight now and then. The people in Unfaithful Wives would depress even the lowliest of Goodis’ protagonists.

This was a fear against which he could find no defense—there was no gun to shoot, no logical story to tell, nothing. Here was a web being spun as if by a huge, invisible spider, a web that coiled around his mind and body and caught him helpless in its toils.

What one notices right from page one is a heavy mood of despair. When we first meet Fred, he wakes next to his lover, Sandra. Hungover and addled by guilt, he says, “I’ve got an idea I’m dead … I almost wish I was.” Throughout the novel, there’s never any pleasure in sex. Tears, remorse, anger, and self-loathing run rampant through Hitt’s bedrooms. “Only the darkness listened to their tears.” Similar to Harry Whittington’s sleaze paperbacks for Nightstand and other sleaze lines, the sex in Unfaithful Wives is bathed in oblivion. One bedroom encounter is described: “And then the walls of the room drove in on them, spinning them out into space, plunging them down into a canyon where the only sound was the slow, uneven crying of the girl beside him.” Hitt captures the dark side of ecstasy, when in the throws of passion we lose control of our thoughts and, instead of pleasure, we let loose all of our panic and paranoia. The prevalence of biting and bleeding during foreplay also suggests a vampiric quality to the relationship, reinforcing the notion that these aren't nurturing bonds and that the partners are draining the life out of one another, slowly killing them, taking and not giving.

Hitt’s description of Fred waking up next to Sandra shows just how nauseating and doomed even the best of these relationships are: “He opened his eyes, looking up at her, and suddenly he wanted to be very sick.” Fred hates himself, and he doesn’t even find the woman he is with attractive. There’s something almost suicidal about his attraction to Sandra—and this same self-destructive impulse can be found in all of the relationships in Unfaithful Wives.

“Bastard,” he said, looking at himself in the mirror. 
He felt like one and he had known yesterday, driving up from Winstead, that he shouldn’t do it, that he shouldn’t be thinking about Sandra or any other woman except his wife.

One of the qualities I like about the characters in Unfaithful Wives is that not only do they know when they’re doing wrong, but they feel remorse. For the most part, it doesn’t stop them—but it does make them more human, more believable. Even the murderer soon forgets his/her [sorry, no spoiler alert here!] rage and settles into regret. Hitt’s people are so defeated they can’t even be good villains. Even in dishonor, they fail. There’s no success anywhere in this world. As Hitt puts it, “Sometimes a guy won. And sometimes he lost.” Simply and eloquently, that’s noir. And Hitt knows it as much as anyone.

Unfaithful Wives is a stunning surprise, even to an Orrie Hitt fan like myself. I loved I’ll Call Every Monday, but the emotional maturity and the depths of feeling in Unfaithful Wives reveal Hitt to be more than just a fine craftsman, but an author with soul, albeit a damaged one in true noir fashion. It’s a fast read (I finished it in a few hours), but it is sure to resonate for a long time to come.
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