Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Lawrence Block on Four Lives at the Crossroads

It seems only appropriate that I write something about FOUR LIVES AT THE CROSSROADS for Ed Gorman. He’s in part responsible for my decision to foist it upon all of y’all.

Bill Hamling’s operation (soft-core erotica while-u-wait) published the book as a Midnight Reader in 1962, so I must have written it sometime that year or the year before. (Manuscripts did not spend much time incubating in Evanston, Illinois. The fledglings lingered only long enough to be outfitted with a cover and title before being nudged out of the nest and into the world.)

This one flew off as Crossroads of Lust, which may or may not have been the title I hung on it. (Lust was so much a Hamling catchword that I’ve wondered if he ever made the effort to trademark it. I turned in one novel with the anagrammatically appealing title of Lust Slut, but someone in Evanston changed it to something else. And, after an all-night poker game had somehow failed to produce a viable collaborative novel, we who had written it referred to the resultant mess as Lust Fuck.)

But I digress…and probably not for the last time. That was this book’s title, Crossroads of Lust. As for its cover, it had nothing much to do with the book, and showed a young woman on her knees, with her hindquarters elevated. (We’ve been using the original cover art on our reissues of the Collection of Classic Erotica titles, but drew the line here; my Goddess of Design and Production said it cried out for the caption, “Doctor, I’m ready for my enema!”)

Anyway, off it went, Crossroads of Lust, launched into the world, and set to waste its fragrance on the desert air. By the time it appeared on shelves wherever bad books were sold, I’d probably written three or four others. I was at the time doing a book a month for Bill Hamling (even as a ghostwriter of mine was doing another under my Andrew Shaw name), and I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my manuscripts once they were out of the house. I was also writing other books, more ambitious work in the more demanding world of crime fiction, and those were the ones I thought about. The Andrew Shaw books took up space in my head only during the time I spent writing them.

Now Crossroads of Lust was in fact a little of both, its plot centered upon the armed robbery of an armored car, the doublecross that ensues, and the two star-crossed lovers racing to the Mexican border.

This wasn’t the first time Andrew Shaw had straddled genre lines. Early on, I started writing a book with a counterfeiting background, with the hope it would wind up as a Gold Medal crime novel. Five or six chapters in I lost confidence in it, felt it was missing the mark, and sexed it up enough to make it that month’s entry for Nightstand. I don’t know what I called it, but the boys in Illinois called it $20 Lust—there’s that word again—and I forgot about it.

But others remembered. Somehow the book came to the attention of both Ed Gorman and Bill Schafer, both of whom thought far more highly of it than did its author. They urged me to bring the book out again, and that was about the last thing I wanted to hear. I went through an enduring phase when I maintained the sort of non-recognition policy toward my pseudonymous early work as did United States for so long toward Mainland China, but with what struck me as better prospects for long-term success; China wasn’t going away, but Andrew Shaw’s work, printed on non-acid-free paper, very well might.

God speed the acid, said I.

It took a while, but eventually Ed and Bill got through to me, and lit a fire under Ego and Avarice, the matched steeds that haul my chariot. Bill’s Subterranean Press published the book, now yclept Cinderella Sims, in hardcover trade and limited editions. When the eRevolution broke out, I brought it out as an ebook via Open Road, and when my deal with that firm ran its course, I published it myself as both an ebook and a paperback, including it in my Classic Crime Library.

Meanwhile, my agent sold it in France, where they published it purely and simply as a crime novel, and where it did quite well. I dunno, maybe something was gained in translation.

Never mind. Over the years, Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime was mining my store of early books, rescuing titles like A Diet of Treacle and Lucky at Cards and Borderline from the oblivion I’d always thought they deserved. I entered into the spirit of things and suggested a few others as Hard Case candidates, and Crossroads was one of them. Charles read it, weighed its merits against its deficiencies, and after due consideration decided against it. Part of his problem with the book was that he felt it was misogynistic, and perhaps it is, or at least several of its characters are.

A few months ago, pleased by the reception which greeted the 16 titles in my Classic Crime Library, I decided what the world needed was a Collection of Classic Erotica—i.e., the better examples of my work as Sheldon Lord and Andrew Shaw. Encouraged by the example of my friend Robert Silverberg, whose view on the subject struck me as far more honest and balanced than my own, I decided it was time not only to recognize Red China but to establish a profitable trade deal. (And to help keep the record straight in the bargain; there are many books out there bearing my pen names that were in fact written by other hands than mine, and republishing my own work is a way of granting it an imprimatur and establishing my personal authorship.)

So I took another look at Crossroads of Lust. And pondered where to include it—Classic Crime Library or Collection of Classic Erotica? Unlike $20 Lust/Cinderella Sims, it didn’t start out trying to be a crime novel. It was from the first page destined to be that month’s effort for Evanston, and that it had a crime plot was essentially coincidental. Andrew Shaw’s books, you should understand, benefited from belonging to an extremely forgiving genre. They had to be long enough, and they had to have a sex scene in every chapter, and they had to be written in some form of American English. Aside from that, they could be whatever they wanted to be, and might include whatever fermented in the author’s psyche and came out through his typewriter.

Did it occur to me, while I was writing Crossroads, that I might better steer it in an unsullied crime fiction direction, with a goal of publishing it with Gold Medal or someone similar? I’m fairly certain I never entertained such a thought. I wanted merely to be done with it and move on to whatever came next.

And now, all those years later, I began reading the book. I was surprised to note that I’d dedicated it—to the woman who’d run the Fourth Street Grill in Newport, Kentucky, an operation described quite faithfully in Crossroads. (You walked into a room with a lunch counter along the wall. “The counter’s closed, boys,” Madge would announce. “Would you like to go upstairs and see a girl?” I went there a couple of times—Newport was across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, which in turn was an hour’s drive from Yellow Springs, where I went to school—and I never got a sandwich or a cup of coffee, but I did go upstairs. I wish I’d thought to get a receipt, that I might write off such visits as tax-deductible research.)

I’ve digressed again, haven’t I? Never mind. I read the book, and saw why the Sage of Cedar Rapids had lobbied for its republication, and saw too why Charles Ardai had decided against it. But maybe a little editing would help.

If nothing else, I could undo some assistance I’d received from someone in Evanston. The epithet of choice throughout the book was louse, and somehow it didn’t ring true. We can stand it when James Cagney snarls “You dirty rat!” when what he would have said was more along the lines of “You fucking cocksucker!”—but he had the Breen office to contend with, and while Nightstand may have avoided all those words George Carlin couldn’t say on TV, I would think something like, say, bastard might do the job better than louse.

So I pruned here and tweaked there and rewrote a few terrible sentences, some of which I may have had the bad judgment to write some 45 years ago. And I began to suspect that what I was doing was putting lipstick on a pig.

Because the book was an erotic quickie at heart, and my efforts wouldn’t be enough to change that. Nor did I see much point in yanking the armored car holdup out of the book and writing a new book around it. It was what it was, and people would enjoy it or not, and if it didn’t really qualify for a slot in the Classic Crime Library, it could certainly hold its own in the Collection of Classic Erotica, where the crime element would only enhance it.

Having reached this conclusion, I went on applying Lady Danger to those porcine lips, probably giving the process more time than it needed. And the Goddess and I decided against gracing the result with its original cover. The Sheldon Lord books for Midwood were blessed with wonderful cover art, more often than not the work of the remarkable Paul Rader; Hamling’s books were less well served, and while Harold W. McCauley provided a superb cover painting for Campus Tramp, as time passed the covers got progressively shorter shrift. With all that lipstick, well, Crossroads deserved a better cover.

And a better title. Four Lives at the Crossroads struck me as an improvement, and I cobbled up a cover to fit, and the Goddess took a look at what I’d done and improved it hugely.

And that’s the story, Maurie—as a young fellow named TJ would tell you. The ebook’s available exclusively for Kindle, while the paperback should be on sale in a matter of weeks—at the CreateSpace store, from Amazon, and through other online booksellers as well.

Ed here: You can pick up the very entertaining Four Lives at the Crossroads by following the link. Visit the Lawrence Block website for more information.

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