Thursday, September 3, 2015
Hot Prowl, by Herbert D. Kastle
No month stated, 1965 Fawcett Gold Medal
This was the last novel Herbert Kastle wrote for Gold Medal Books and he certainly went out with a bang. It was also the last novel he published with the “D.” in his name; after this he’d just be “Herbert Kastle” and he’d begin writing Harold Robbins-esque blockbusters, starting with the 1968 bestseller The Moviemaker. And in a way Hot Prowl, while nominally supsense fiction as expected from Gold Medal, points the way to Kastle’s later, more unhinged work.
I couldn’t find any info online regarding what this novel was about, and the back cover wasn’t much help either, just a snatch of dialog from the book itself. Same goes for the first-page preview. But Hot Prowl turns out to be Kastle’s take on Death Wish, or Bronson or The Vigilante to use more obscure comparisons; it’s about a 36 year-old New York PR guy named Ted Barth whose life was destroyed ten months ago when his wife and nine-year-old daughter were murdered by a young punk who broke into their Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night – a “hot prowl,” as such cases are known, where the perp breaks into a residence knowing there are people inside.
Now Barth roams the mean streets of New York in the middle of the night, seeking “the boy,” whom the cops have been unable to find. We’ll eventually learn that Barth was sleeping on the couch the night of the break-in, as his relationship with his wife Myrna was in no way idyllic, and he caught a fleeting glimpse of the kid as he ran from the apartment, jumping out the window and running down the fire escape. The kid’s face is burned in Barth’s brain and now he’s hungry for vengeance, the many months since the murders doing nothing to dull his anger. But unlike the men’s adventure novels that would follow within the next several years, Barth goes out without any weaponry, save for his own hands. Like a regular Jason Striker our hero is a judo expert and relishes the thought of killing the boy with his bare hands.
However, this is a Herbert Kastle novel, and Ted Barth is in no way, shape or form a white hat hero. As is typical with a Kastle protagonist, the guy is royally fucked up. And this isn’t just fallout from the loss of his family, as we learn he’s always had a few screws loose. Within the first few pages he’s already lusting for some woman, staying with his brother-in-law Wallace at a cabin retreat in upstate New York for a week’s vacation. Barth watches from the shrubs as the young girl, a worker at the retreat, spurns the advances of another young man, and then he pounces on her, hoping to talk her into going back up to his cabin. But when another coworker tries to stake his claim on the girl, Barth beats the shit out of him with his judo, enjoying it; the girl runs away from him.
One thing typical about Kastle’s “heroes” is how they fight with everyone. In every Kastle novel I’ve read the protagonist is a dude in his 30s or 40s who has been beaten down by life, realizes he’s missed out on everything, and is goddamn determined to catch up on lost time, no matter who he has to step on. This generally takes him into darker realms of the psyche, and as is common with the typical Kastle protagonist, Barth is more than willing to make the journey. In the 160 breezy pages of Hot Prowl Ted Barth beats up multiple people, runs afoul of the cops, gets kicked out of his judo class for being too savage, assaults and maims former coworkers, sleeps with multiple hookers (including one who is thirteen years old), stalks a woman, and roams the streets starting fights. And then he stars doing really bad stuff.
So in other words there isn’t much heroic about the guy, which again differentiates him from the men’s adventure protagonists who would arrive on the scene within the decade. Barth has been horribly wronged but you realize he’s more about his own satisfaction than about righting any wrong; it gradually develops that “the boy” has just become Barth’s outlet for the wrong directions he took in his life, and Barth’s thinking is that if he can find him and kill him Barth can start a new life in a new city. He’s long ago stopped relying on the cops, much to the dismay of Lt. D’Andrea, who heads up the investigation into the murder of Barth’s family. D’Andrea is getting sick of Barth, particularly how he’s been hauled in by the cops so many times for wandering around the tougher parts of the city late at night and causing trouble.
Meanwhile Barth is also fixated on Susan, a pretty young blonde who works in his PR firm (Barth is on an extended leave of absence, by the way). He goes on friendly dates with her and is determined to take it to the next level, but Susan enjoys playing the field and appears to be getting serious with a guy her age named Arthur. But Barth keeps pushing her, asking her on dates and not getting the hint when she frostily tells him she has plans with Arthur. Soon he’s stalking her, even planning to beat Arthur nearly to death so that Susan will have no choice but to fall in love with him. A madman’s plan, but Barth is a madman, the most psychotic protagonist in a Kastle novel yet.
In between the Susan-stalking and street-prowling Barth gets involved in a lot of memorable moments. He takes on various thugs with nothing more than his fists and feet, and to slake his lust at one point he hires a pair of hookers, one black and one white. Kastle doesn’t go into as much detail in the sex scenes, none of which are as explicit as the ones he’d be writing in just a few years, but they certainly aren’t vague. As usual though it’s the dark comedy that’s more potent, like how the black hooker tries to make away with Barth’s cash box without him noticing it, and he gets in a brawl with her, knocking her flat with his judo skills and apparently having sex with her afterwards – another hallmark of a Kastle protagonist is that violence turns him on.
More hooker sex follows later in the book in a more descriptive passage, all the more shocking because the whore is only thirteen. This is in a desolate patch of Manhattan mostly occupied by blacks in tenement buildings; the hooker is bait and tries to lure Barth into an abandoned building. He follows her, knowing someone will be waiting in the shadows to jump him and take his money. He happily beats the dude nearly to death with his judo and then calls the “infant” over to look. She again offers herself to him, and Barth does the prepubescent right there on the wall. Meanwhile it’s back to the search for that guy who killed his wife and daughter; Barth haunts the many pawn shops in the New York area, the clues he seeks being the tape recorder, film camera, and wedding ring the thief stole that night.
The lead which brings the hot prowler out into the open is when the cops turn up the stolen tape recorder in a Long Island pawn shop. The old man there is a fence who does business with the kid. When Barth goes down to the precinct to identify the tape, there follows a heartbreaking moment where he plays the tape that’s still in it and hears the voice of his daughter. Kastle proves again his mastery by understating this scene. Whereas today it’s all about overstatement, with a scene like this requiring a teeth-gnashing hero bawling his eyes out, Kastle understands that understatement is more powerful. Barth merely plays the tape, listens, and then shuts it off because he can’t take anymore.
Things come to a head when the punk kid begins stalking Barth. He comes home one night to find a threatening note slid beneath his door, and soon after begins receiving calls from the kid. Barth doesn’t tell D’Andrea and begins leaving his door unlocked at night, basically inviting the kid inside. He also soon realizes the kid is following behind him on the streets, and this leads to several chases. Finally he gets the kid, who tries to jump him one night. Barth is only able to use a savage arm lock on the kid before D’Andrea and the cops show up – they’ve been shadowing Barth too, knowing he was setting himself up as bait for the kid, who turns out to be a punk named Arhtur Brest.
Here is where Kastle begins to toy with the narrative and with our thoughts of it so far. The kid is interrogated and insists that he didn’t kill the wife or the daughter, that they were both alive when he ran out of the apartment. This is why he was stalking Barth now, because he was afraid Barth was going to make him take the fall for those murders. D’Andrea tells the kid he’s nuts, that no one would suspect that Barth himself killed his family. But here’s the thing – the reader sure as hell suspects it, because we’ve seen what a nutcase Ted Barth truly is. At this point nothing’s sacred in the novel, as we begin to wonder if Barth really did kill Myra and little Debbie. But the cops aren’t privy to how crazy the dude is, and D’Andrea is certain Brest will crack soon enough and admit it all – the kid is a heroin addict and is in the early stages of withdrawal.
Things spiral from here, along with Barth’s sanity. He’s desperate to get Brest to admit to the slayings, but the kid won’t budge. Mostly Barth just wants some time alone with the kid, and convinces D’Andrea to let him near the kid in his cell. Barth of course plans to kill Brest, reaching through the bars, but D’Andrea is as always two steps ahead of him and has Barth thrown out. Now openly sick of Barth, the cop tells him it’s time to get on with his life – the perp has been caught, the murderer of Barth’s family will pay. So, given that the villain of the piece has been captured, you’d think our protagonist would be happy, but again this is a Herbert Kastle protagonist we’re talking about, so what does he do? He gets serious about beating Susan’s boyfriend to death and then fucking Susan silly.
I’d advise skipping to the last two paragraphs of this review if you’d like to avoid spoilers. Get prepared for an uncomfortable read in the final chapters; Barth talks Susan into a trip to the beach, during which he hassles her, making his interest clearly known. She turns him down again and again; she’s never felt that way about him, she declares. Barth sulks but then realizes that “the Susan of the flesh” can still be his, even if the Susan of his dreams can’t be; he’s become fixated on her as the solution to all his ills, that they could run away and live together in a new city. She invites him in to her place back in the city and Barth excuses himself, then breaks into the bathroom as she’s taking a shower and gets in it with her. He beats her around a little with his judo, tells her to yield to him, and then rapes her on the bathroom floor.
It only gets darker. Barth threatens Arthur’s life – if Susan tells the police he raped her, he will kill the young man. Susan, beaten and terrified, swears she won’t say anyting. Barth leaves, satisfied with his victory over both the woman and his feelings for her – it was only lust after all, not love – only to find D’Andrea and another cop lurking in the apartment complex foyer. Turns out D’Andrea had heard Barth was stalking someone in this area (Susan’s boyfriend Arthur, of course), and had come by to check on him, given how unhinged he’s become. This leads to a desperate fight in which Barth unleashes his full judo skills on the two cops, during which we get to see what really happened that night of the “hot prowl.”
As the reader has already begun to suspect, it was Ted Barth himself who killed his wife and daughter – his wife because he was sick of her, sick of his stultifying married life with her, and used the break-in that night as a cover to murder her. But his daughter Debbie saw him do it, and he “had no choice” but to kill her, too. Having sliced both their throats with a steak knife, Barth broke the blade in pieces and flushed it, and “that Ted Barth never left the bathroom.” He had a psychic break, and in his mind he only came to when Bresk ran from the apartment; only until this moment he had forgotten about the fact that he himself was the murderer of his family. All this is relayed as Barth lies dying from a gutshot courtesy the cop with D’Andrea; without being aware of it he tells D’Andrea what really happened that night, and then dies, “leaping” into the abyss.
In a way this really is a cheat; you’re presented with this character whose life has been destroyed and you want to take him at face value. But Kastle’s interests as ever lie elsewhere. His theme isn’t how terrible events can destory a man, but that the man was terrible in the first place and the events just made him worse – events which he caused himself. I know the Fugitive TV show pulled this same trick, with the hero turning out at long last to have really been the murderer all along, but Kastle’s novel predates that. However Kastle’s reveal likely wasn’t as suprising to readers, as nowhere in Hot Prowl is Ted Barth cast in a heroic light. He’s ready to blow from page one. And boy does he.
Now as for Kastle’s writing – as usual, it’s superb. I realized as I read Hot Prowl that Kastle is one of those rare writers who turns out great prose, with just the right dialog, phrasing, and composition, yet he also has that ability where you become immersed in the narrative to the point where you don’t even realize the quality of his writing. In other words he pulls you into the fictive dream, which is the goal of every author but is achieved only by the best. It’s just yet another reason why Kastle should be remembered today, but he’s been forgotten.
The guy is definitely one of my favorite authors and one of these days I intend to track down the short stories he wrote for various crime magazines at the time, in particular the two issues of Manhunt which feature his work.