New York writer Lawrence Block is best-known these days as a master of hardboiled crime fiction, with a diverse collection of noir series characters, including alcoholic gumshoe Matt Scudder, charming thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, and lonely but terminally professional hit man Keller. In his early career, though, he also wrote under a plethora of pseudonyms, including Jill Emerson, credited with seven novels of steamy lesbian erotica. He was young, he needed the work, but he wasn’t ashamed—in fact, he later republished at least one of the Emersons under his real name. Block picks up the Emerson identity again—sort of, anyway, since his own name is far larger on the cover—for Getting Off, the first hardcover published by stylish indie imprint Hard Case Crime, which specializes in classic reprints and new (but hardly virginal) works of gleefully sleazy old-school paperback pulp fiction.
Getting Off covers the same unabashedly tawdry territory as Emerson’s older oeuvre, with a twist worthy of Jim Thompson: The nymphomaniacal, blonde protagonist is also a sociopathic serial killer who drifts from town to town murdering her many men, motivated by lingering rage and abandonment issues left over from father/daughter incest that spilled over into patricide. Deceptively innocent, Kit Tolliver isn’t just a sex maniac (and remorseless knife-wielding maniac), she’s a pathological liar who changes her name and life story with unnerving ease to lull her victims. Reflecting her rootless existence, Getting Off unfolds chapter by chapter like a series of linked short stories, in each of which she meets and disposes of a new man. She’s icy and clinical about murder, but constantly overheated about sex. Aimless, she picks up some semblance of a life goal (and the novel picks up the threads of its loosely woven plot) when she realizes that of all the men she’s had, five have survived—which is unforgivably sloppy of her, and ought to be corrected.
With the same skill he’s shown in his more mainstream work, Block slowly ratchets up the intensity and violence, using each successive murder either to give a deeper glimpse into Kit’s twisted psyche, or push her one step further toward her psychotic but somehow distortedly logical goal. He also accomplishes the same trick Thompson often pulled of planting readers inside his killer’s mind just enough to understand her without sympathy, as well as Richard Stark’s trick of treating criminal behavior as just a job to be worked. And as with Thompson’s books, there’s a thick layer of dark humor bubbling throughout the swamp of Kit’s messed-up psychology—the street-smart but undereducated Kit mistakes a reference to Shakespeare’s Goneril for “gonorrhea,” and also encounters a kinky but violently untrustworthy threesome-seeking couple apparently named after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Emerson/Block writes about killing and the sex with such shameless relish that it would be foolish to even suggest this is anything but exploitative trash. Especially when the phenomenally lurid cover art so accurately reflects what happens under the dust jacket. John Waters would love this book, and would be perfect to direct any future film version. Some trash can also be high art, but Block probably isn’t even trying for anything loftier here than entertaining sleaze. But for exploitative trash, it’s excellently crafted and lean.