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Book Review: Getting Off by Lawrence Block (Writing as Jill Emerson)

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Like a good many professional storytellers, Lawrence Block has written under more than one name over the years: perhaps the most startling nom du plume is that of “Jill Emerson.” The authoress of seven prior novels that include “sensitive lesbian fiction” and “candid erotica,” the pseudonymous Miz E. has now crafted a Hard Case Crime novel entitled Getting Off. Subtitled “a novel of sex and violence,” the pulpy thriller tracks a shapely serial killer who goes by many names, traveling across the country to pick up unsuspecting men that she can bed, kill and bed again. A creepy character, to be sure, but Block/Emerson make her an enticing one.

Our anti-heroine has gone for years, living off horny dupes, and she’s only had five male survivors throughout her murderous career. When a chance remark gets her thinking about the Ones Who Got Away, she decides to track each one down to achieve complete closure. The bulk of Getting Off, then, follows our gal on her man-by-man quest, turning this book into a twisted variation on Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black. You can see Block having fun with his diverse crew of victims: one of ‘em, for example, turns out to be a recovering sex addict in a 12-step program, which allows the writer to fiddle around with the tenets that bolster his more famous recovering alcoholic hero, Matt Scudder. In another, the murderess cleverly makes use of her victim’s religious beliefs to slay one of her targets by proxy.

Befitting its non-too-subtle title, Off is open in its sexual content — unsurprising for a writer known for earlier works of “candid erotica” — and in considering its protagonist’s twisted sexuality. As she embarks on her quest, she connects with a slightly older, somewhat shapelier dame named Rita. The two attach to each other by talking progressively more sexually (lots of use of the “c-word”), and as the relationship builds, both our anti-heroine and the reader begin to wonder. If these two consummate their relationship, will Rita have to become the next victim? To test this out, our inquisitive killer starts to frequent lesbian bars, looking for a suitable hook-up.

Block/Emerson deliver this material in a suitably lean style not much different from Block’s usual Scudder work. In this, we can see “Emerson” as an heir to  pulpish women pioneers as Leigh Brackett, who had her hands in the first movie adaptation of The Big Sleep and was herself adept at tough-as-nails narration. While you can understand the commercial reasons for doing so, in a way blowing Block’s cover takes away some of the fun in this book: seeing his bearded visage on the back dust cover, you can’t help wondering how it might’ve read if we still believed this wonderfully seedy exercise was written by a real “Jill.”

Though portions of this episodic book originally appeared as short stories in a quartet of noir collections, the full novel is making its debut as part of the Hard Case Crime series. A line of new and reprint pulp crime novels that originally appeared in paperback form, Hard Case now appears to be affixed to British publisher Titan Books’ hard cover catalog. Got to admit that seeing Gregory Manchess’ suitably seedy cover (nekkid girl holding a knife suggestively down her backside while another femme — Rita, perhaps — undresses the duo’s impending victim) attached to a hardback dust cover was a little bit odd, but it’s great to see this sturdy line of crime fiction enduring in print form.

More Hard Cases, please.

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.