MysteryPeople Review: BORDERLINE by Lawrence Block

Borderline by Lawrence Block
Reviewed by Molly

Lawrence Block is one of noir’s most prolific writers, and his more than fifty novels cover all kinds of sub-genres. His latest contribution to society, Borderline, is a relic of the early fifties porn paperback industry and takes place in the alcohol-soaked hipster paradise of Juárez. This book has aged exceedingly well. The innuendo for a more conservative time now reads like a sly, welcome relief from the bluntness of a less-censored industry. Block’s stylish, stripped-down prose does not detract from the power of his erotic moments but instead seamlessly incorporates them into the overall narrative.

reads like a sexier, more disturbing On the Road. Characters speak in hip slang at cool coffeehouses and sexual proclivities of all kinds are not only tolerated, but encouraged. The story takes place over a few days and not too much happens. There are a couple murders,here and there, and a lot of sex without a whole lot of love, but the story carries with it a strong beatnik vibe that fits its picaresque narrative perfectly.

A divorcee, a runaway, a professional gambler, a jaded sex worker, and a serial killer see their paths cross in the steamy bars and permissive atmosphere of life across the border from a puritanical post-war America. Some characters are lucky to meet each other, others not so much. Descriptions of the sex industry combine with the homicidal urges of a stalker to portray a world none too friendly to women, but the female characters hold their own in dialogue and moxie.

In Borderline, Block has created a fascinating critique of Cold War conformity. In the taboo-free zone of Juárez, his characters find outlets to satisfy their pent-up urges, and the consequences are tragic and inevitable. In particular, the story’s resident serial killer is egged on in his obsessions by horror comics, and believes he is justified in committing murder as it elevates his victims out of obscurity.

Included in the volume are three short stories showcasing Block’s talent for the nasty, brutal and short as his characters occupy a Hobbesian world of endless struggle and arbitrary violence. Each story is a self-contained gem that reads well on its own or with the others. Add Borderline to your list of hard-boiled classics.

You can order copies of Borderline now via, or, find the book on our shelves in-store at BookPeople.

MysteryPeople Q&A with THOMAS PLUCK

Thomas Pluck is one of those authors who I hope sees much success, mainly because reading will be a hell of a lot more fun if he is. He’s written several stories that can be found online. One of my favorite features 1970S African American Kung-Fu Fighter Brown Sugar Brookdale in his story for Blood & Tacos, a homage to men’s action paperbacks from that era. His novel, Blade Of Dishonor, is an update of the genre, featuring an Iraqi war veteran and former MMA fighter, Rage Cage Reeves, caught in a centuries old war between ninja and samari over an ancient sword. We caught up with Pluck to ask him a few questions.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for Rage Cage Reeves come about?

THOMAS PLUCK: David Cranmer of Beat to a Pulp approached me with the idea after I sent him a story about an MMA fighter called “A Glutton for Punishment,” that connected with readers. The comment section got wiped out in an upgrade, but even Lawrence Block liked it–I’m kicking myself for not taking a screenshot–and David approached me with an idea about a mixed-martial arts fighter battling ninjas over a magic sword. It didn’t grab me at first, but after some research, I learned that the most treasured of Japanese swords, handed down to the Tokugawa Shoguns, went missing at the end of World War II. That’s when it came together. I train in Kachin Bando, which is Burmese boxing and grappling, and I trained at a Shooto Dojo in Japan that all helped make Reeves the fighter he is.

MP: The book is a throwback to the action paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s. Do you have a favorite title in that genre?

TP: I like The Rat Bastards, and, of course, The Destroyer, which I came to in a roundabout way- I saw the Remo Williams movie on HBO. It’s not the best ’80s actioner, but Chiun is unforgettable. He’s so much better in the books. He’s a huge inspiration for old Butch. I liked Lawrence Block’s Tanner books, and Marc Olden’s Black Samurai, too.

MP: The fight scenes are great. As someone who is a practicing martial artist, what advice can you give about writing these kinds of scenes?

TP: I actually choreographed a few of them at the gym I train at, Asylum Fight Gym in Mahwah. My trainer Phil Dunlap loves action films, and I wanted to make the fights as realistic as possible, so class would begin with me asking, “What’s the best way to break someone’s clavicle?” My advice would be to keep the fights short. Overlong slugfests are rare, and they can be criminally boring. I took advice from Frank Bill: keep them short, brutal, and jarring. From my experience, I don’t remember much from fights, just details -like “I had my fist around his throat and then I was flat on my face with his knee in my back,”- and I tend to write that way, not from a play-by-play football game perspective.

MP: Butch’s World War II flashbacks are full of adventure, but you get a sense of the emotional toll it took on him. What did you want to convey about that war?

TP: The book is dedicated to my great-uncles, all veterans of that war. I saw the emotional toll it took on them every Sunday when we met at my grandmother’s for coffee. I feel like WWII and the Greatest Generation are slowly becoming the cowboys of the American West for our culture. They were all morally upstanding, brave, and believed in the cause. Which is a load of horseshit, as Butch would say. They were people in a war they didn’t want to fight; they wanted to be back home with their families. And, as in any war, you do some crazy things to protect the man fighting beside you. All sides did some terrible things. We don’t talk about Japan’s Unit 731 because we’re allies now. [A biological & chemical warfare research facility that conducted human experiments. ] We dehumanized each other. And it’s all too easy to do that in fiction, but I made every villain have good reason to do what he did, at least in his mind. Doesn’t justify it, and it surely doesn’t stop Reeves from killing them.

MP: You also edited a short story collection, Protectors. Can you tell us about that?

TP: Protectors is a charity anthology I edited to support PROTECT: The National Association to Protect Children. They are a non-partisan, pro-child and anti-crime nonprofit organization which lobbies for legislation that protects children from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. 100% of the proceeds from the book go to PROTECT, and I’ve donated thousands of dollars since it was published. Authors including Joe Lansdale, George Pelecanos, Andrew Vachss, Ken Bruen, Chet Williamson, Roxane Gay, Josh Stallings, Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, and many more contributed stories, many of which appear nowhere else- including “Spectre in the Galway Wind” by Ken Bruen, and “Runaway” by Dave White, which was included as a distinguished mystery story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2013. The book was a labor of love and continues to find readers, and I know you have some on the shelf at BookPeople. It is also available on Kobo through your store, if folks want it on their e-reader.

MP: You’re working on a book titled Bury The Hatchet. What can you divulge? It stars Jay Desmarteaux, the Cajun bruiser who stars in “Gumbo Weather,” which you so kindly chose for Crime Fiction Friday in January.

TP: Here’s the pitch: When Jay Desmarteaux walks out of prison after serving 25 years for the murder of a vicious bully, he seeks his family and follows the advice of his convict mentor: the best revenge is living well. But old friends want him to disappear, and new enemies want him dead. With his wits and fists, Jay unravels a twisted tale of small town secrets and good old New Jersey corruption. He only wanted to bury the hatchet… and now someone wants to bury him instead.
Today they’d say Jay has attention deficit disorder. I’ll just say he’s quick with his fists and deals with the consequences later. And there are always consequences. If you liked the taste of “Gumbo Weather,” he gets in a lot more jams in this one. Guess you can say he jumps out of the gumbo and into the pot of crawfish boil.


Copies of Blade of Dishonor are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via


blade of dishonor

For my generation, our pulp fiction was the men’s action paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s. Series like The Executioner, The Destroyer, or my favorite title, The Rat Bastards, were full of action, beautiful women, and the toughest of tough guys. The stories ranged from vigilantes, martial artsists, to World War II commandos. Thomas Pluck lovingly crams in as many of the tropes as he can in his epic update of the genre, Blade Of Dishonor.

Our hero is Rage Cage Reeves, a former MMA fighter returning from service in Afghanistan. He stays with his grandfather, Butch, a World War Two vet who lives above his army surplus store. After a bar fight where we see Rage Cage in action (and where he meets up with his old flame, Tara, a sexy and sarcastic ambulance driver), a Japanese businessman makes an offer for Butch’s store. When Butch refuses, an attempt is made on his life and the store is burnt to the ground.

Along with Tara, Reeves is on the run and out for revenge. It’s all tied to a war between samurai and ninjas over a sword Butch gave Reeves. We’re given flashbacks of Butch’s war years as a commando and how he got the blade, as Reeves’ journey of revenge takes him to the far east and the ultimate cage match.

This book is The Raiders Of The Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks. It has everything we love about those old pulp classics, fast pacing, tough beautiful women, macho guys, codes of honor, and a lot of action, all done with a high level of execution. Pluck gives us tons of gratuitous fight scenes, yet motivates it so well it never comes off as such. A martial artist himself, he delivers the blow by blow with a visceral feel. He also knows when to give a humorous aside, giving a nod to the reader. His love of the genre acts as a great undercurrent to the story.

Blade Of Dishonor is the most unpretentious book I’ve read in a long time. It simply wants to entertain and pulls out all the stops to do so. I hope Thomas Pluck realizes that many of these pulp books had a hundred to a series.


Copies of Blade of Dishonor are available on our shelves and via

Painting it Black: Bouchercon 2013

On the town with Detectives Without Borders blog founder Pete Rovovsky and author RJ Ellory.
On the town with Detectives Without Borders blog founder Pete Rovovsky and author RJ Ellory.

Albany is a quaint city, with rolling hills (I swear I was always walking uphill, even on the way back), historic buildings and friendly people who say, “Absolutely,” when you ask them for a favor. Into this bucolic atmosphere descended thousands of crime fiction writers, publishers, booksellers, and fans like a plague of dark, drunken, philosophical rats from September 19th – 22nd. I can say this because I was one of the them attending this year’s Bouchercon, the world’s largest mystery conference.

Debate went into high gear during the New Noir panel. Moderator Reed Farrel Coleman introduced the idea that there are now two different kinds of noir fiction. One is traditional that relies more on mood and psychology. The newer form relies on violence and shock value. It was probably the most engaging discussion at the conference, with Duane Swierczynski defending the new form along with Jason Starr admitting that his works tend to fall into this category. The discussion wrapped up with a few jokes about Reed’s age and a quip from Hilary Davidson that would make any femme fatale proud.

Les Edgerton’s Pulp Fiction, Baby! panel also discussed playing on the dark and moody side of the street. As happened last year, Les had the best line of the year: “Paint your character black and the light will shine through.”

Josh Stalling talked about how he enjoyed hiding real ideas and social commentary in pulp fiction. He also cited James Crumley’s Dancing Bear and the original Winnie The Pooh as the books most influential in his process. When asked which Pooh character he relates the most with, he answered, “I’m always Eeyore.”

The Shameless Dead Cats & Bad Girls panel hosted by Laura Lippman dealt with taboos in crime fiction. Megan Abbott cited Gone Girl as proof that the mainstream has embraced the type of dark fiction that was more marginalized in the past.

0921131611Discussion of what is taboo in noir fiction was the theme amongst most panels at Bouchercon. Taking advantage of that, David Corbett turned his I Go To Extremes panel into a drinking game with the words, “noir,” “taboo,” “transgressive,” and “Tarantino.” Unfortunately for David, he forgot Todd Robinson, Glenn Gray, and I were in attendance. We’re three guys known for being loud and opinionated even when we’re sober.

The panels definitely covered a lot outside the question of what has become taboo.

I learned more about Austin author Mark Pryor at The Liar’s panel, where they played a game with the audience to guess when Mark was telling a lie, the truth, or a half-truth.

At the WW2 and Sons panel, Martin Limon spoke about how the culture clash he witnessed as a GI stationed in Korea between the locals and the US military lead to writing the Sueno & Bascome series.

In a discussion about writing unreliable narrators, Megan Abbott talked about how she believes noir protagonists will always be unreliable, since they are always attempting to justify their actions. Laura Lippman agreed, adding that the

y are also trying to convince the reader that they would have done the same.

With party hosts, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tom Schreck, and Jon and Ruth Jordan.

You couldn’t let this group of dark, philosophical rats go without a night of revelry. On the first night of the con, authors Reed Farrell Coleman, Tom Schreck and Crimespree magazine’s Jon and Ruth Jordan threw a spectacular party. The Franklin Towers Bar was all shook up with classic rock n’ roll covers flowing from the stage, with Johnny Rebel And The Jail House Rockers at the helm. It was overwhelming to see such a who’s who in crime fiction. The place was so packed, even the sidewalk outside was crowded.

I would love to share more details, but it might be a little too risqué for the blogosphere.

I hung on until the bitter end, so I was able to see every dark nook and cranny of this year’s Buchercon. I went to the annual Dead Dog Dinner with those left over on Sunday night. Then, the next morning, it was breakfast and sightseeing with author RJ Ellory and bloggers Ali Karim and Peter Rozovsky before we had to catch our trains.

I don’t know if we attendees ever answered the question about whether or not we’ve gone too far in noir fiction. Maybe we have.

Will we push it further? Absolutely.