Thursday, October 17, 2013
Cross-Country, by Herbert Kastle
December, 1975 Dell Books
This was Herbert Kastle's last hardcover book for a few years, at least here in the States; after this novel he was relegated to paperback originals (until Ladies of the Valley, which came out in hardcover in 1979). Which is fine by me, as I much prefer paperbacks. But anyway at least Cross-Country was a memorable way to go out, Kastle returning to his crime fiction roots but leavening the tale with the hot and heavy sex scenes he’d been writing since 1968 in his steamy, Harold Robbins-style potboilers.
The novel opens with the discovery of Judith Keel’s mutilated corpse – Keel, a gorgeous blonde who worked as an assistant in an ad agency, has been hacked up in horrible fashion in her Manhattan apartment, her severed arms chained to the headboard of her bed and her body tossed on the floor and further desecrated. From this we jump to Evan Bley, a top ad man at the agency Keel worked for, and Kastle immediately lets us know that this guy likely killed Judith; Evan’s stopping off in a topless bar for a quick drink before getting in his Jaguar and leaving New York forever.
But Evan’s picked up by a stacked brunette with an Australian accent; the lady is named Lois, and she instantly deduces that Evan’s planning to ditch town and she wants to go with him, especially when Evan informs her he’s planning a cross-country drive to Los Angeles. After getting bombed out on the bar’s potent drinks, Evan wakes to find himself sprawled out on the backseat of his own car, Lois in the passenger seat…and some bearded freak behind the wheel. This turns out to be John, Lois’s ex-boyfriend, and thus begins the major twisted thread of this twisted novel.
In one of the most brazen acts of coincidence I’ve ever read in a novel, Kastle gradually reveals that, unbeknownst to one another, each of these strangers knew Judith Keel. Thus, since each of them have shady, lawless backgrounds and insane tendencies, each of them are actually suspects as Keel’s murderer. Before we get to that though we have a long, tense sequence in which they keep going up against one another, Evan feeling like he’s been swindled, what with the sudden appearance of John, who comes off like a creep who’s planning to steal Evan’s car and/or slash his throat while Evan’s sleeping. Kastle is a dark comedy master and this sequence is filled with it, as Evan and John keep trying to one up one another.
Meanwhile we are introduced to the hero of the tale, such as he is: Detective Eddie Roersch of the NYPD, a 30+ year veteran of the force who, at a heavyset and weathered 55, feels like life has passed him by and that he’ll never get the recognition or the pay he deserves. Despite having more collars than any other detective in his precinct, Roersch has never been promoted to Lieutenant, let alone Captain.
Beyond the job Roersch’s personal life is in disarray, given the death seven months ago of his wife of three decades. Not that Kastle makes much of Roersch’s widowhood; he’s already sort of moved on, scoring sex from a high-class hooker named Ruthie who happens to live on the same floor as Roersch’s Manhattan apartment. In exchange for not busting her Ruthie gives Roersch freebies, but over these past few months Roersch has found himself thinking of Ruthie as more than just a free lay.
Assigned the Keel case, Roersch very quickly deduces that Evan Bley is the top suspect. The majority of the Roersch sections follow a police procedural format, with Roersch tracking clues and leads. Soon enough he has what he figures is a cut and dry case against Bley. But this is a Kastle novel, and there are no white hats; seeing as how wealthy Bley is, Roersch decides that instead of tracking him down and arresting him, Roersch will instead build a solid case against Bley, find him, and tell him he can either go to the chair or pay Roersch a few hundred thousand dollars, and Bley will go free.
Evan Bley, though, is pretty sick. Not really sick, but tormented, having grown up with an overbearing mother who burned a permanent scar into young Evan, having once discovered him masturbating in the bathroom. In one of those bizarre yet (darkly) humorous scenes he excels in, Kastle has the mom go apeshit, beating young Evan and then, believe it or not, pulling down her skirt and graphically showing him that it’s her time of the month and blaming it all on him! Well, you won’t be surprised to know that this has had some definite ramifications on Evan, who nonetheless considers himself a “monster.” Kastle himself builds a pretty damning case against Bley as being Judith Keel’s murderer, but Bley’s fellow passengers are screwed up too.
John has his own sob story background: he’s from a wealthy background but has been drifting around the country for the past decade. In another dark comedy flashback we see how when John was a young boy his dad went balistic when he found out that John’s mom was sleeping around, a crazed scene that sees a poor dog kicked around until it’s hamburger. Lois too is fucked up, being raped by her father when a teenager and from there finding brief comfort in the arms of other women; but lesbian affairs are completely against her nature, she constantly chastizes herself. Having been in the States for the past few years she makes her meager living dancing in bars or working in massage parlors, but she dreams of becoming a famous actress. When she finds out that Evan has contacts in the industry, she latches on to him.
What’s weird is how Kastle builds a familial relationship for these three whackjobs. First though there’s the tension, both of the danger and the sexual variety; Lois coming on to Evan, much to John’s frustration. And you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy, given how Lois so brazenly rubs it in his face that she’s over him and now wants Evan – who is not only better looking and in better shape, but has more money and a bigger dick. In fact Evan’s size is often brought up, particularly in the first of several highly graphic sex scenes between him and Lois – as I wrote above, Kastle with this novel returned to the crime fiction genre he’d written in the early ‘60s, but here he’s free to give vent to his most explicit ideas. There’s some hardcore stuff throughout Cross-Country, and no detail is spared.
As the trio moves on through the Midwest they become closer, Lois feeling like the glue that holds them all together (sometimes literally). But she’s moved on from John and wants Evan for herself, so in another lurid sequence they manage to pick up an attractive but stupid redneck girl named Alma-Jean, who works in a clothing store. More drinking, drugs, and group sex ensues, but Lois, who has lesbian tendencies she tries to subdue, loses control of herself on the girl.
Another demonstration of Kastle’s skill, this sequence goes from erotica to horror as it devolves into bad vibes all around, Lois storming off and Alma-Jean hitting the road, sick of these “freaks,” with John trying to find her before she can get away. Kastle plays this game throughout where we know that one of the trio is a murderer, but which one? They all have their issues, and they all have their chances in the narrative to commit murder – and sure enough, later on we learn that Alma-Jean’s mutilated body has been discovered in a dumpster outside the hotel, and it could’ve been any one of the three who killed her.
Roersch, still in New York, begins to doubt his blackmail scheme, once news of Alma-Jean’s death comes to him. This means that, along with Judith Keel and two other murdered girls, four people have been killed by Bley (Roersch’s only suspect; he doesn’t even know about Lois or John), and how could Roersch live with himself if he allowed a monster like that to escape justice? Meanwhile Roersch goes on with his life, finding that his feelings for Ruthie, the hooker next door, have increased to the point where he wants the blackmail money from Bey so as to provide a better life for her and her prepubescent daughter.
Cross-Country is more of a slow burn affair, and lacks the dynamic characterization and plotting of Ladies of the Valley. It is however a much darker tale (believe it or not), with practically every character fucked up to some degree. But the writing is as strong as ever, with Kastle fully bringing his rejects to life; he remains locked in each perspective when featuring each character, and brings you enough into their worlds that you can at least understand them, if not like them. Save for Lois, who comes off as more self-centered and annoying in her sequences, and I get the feeling Kastle had a hard time writing about her, as there isn’t much there.
The action only picks up toward the climax, when Roersch feels he’s successfully put together his case (after visits with Roersch’s still-domineering mother, now old and alone, as well as a private eye named McKenney, who tailed Judith Keel for Bley) and heads for a confrontation with the man in the Grand Canyon, having got hold of Bley’s planned travel route through AA (Bley being a member). But we see that it’s all come to a head for our depraved trio, as well, as during another group sex session things again become nightmarish, with bad vibes leading to a startling but expected bit where John buggers Evan – who despite his shock realizes he enjoys it.
Please skip this paragraph if you don’t want the novel’s surprise spoiled. As mentioned above, Evan, John, and Lois could each have been the murderer of Judith Keel, as well as poor Alma-Jean and some other women back in New York. Gradually though I figured out which of the three it was, mostly due to a bit of foreshadowing Kastle delivers early in the book; Roersch, considering the horrible nature of the Keel murder, figures it had to have been a man behind it, as female murders of such brutality are few. He can only think of the Countess Bathory. From this I soon figured Kastle was foreshadowing that Lois was actually Keel’s murderer (and all the other girls besides). And Lois does indeed turn out to be the killer, as revealed at the very end. As yet another example of his writing skill, you can go back to the sequences from Lois’s POV and see how Kastle has so masterfully left clues therein. But my problem here is that after this reveal Lois immediately “acts crazy,” blithely recounting her murderous deeds to Roersch as she perches above a chasm in the Grand Canyon. The way her character acts here in the climax is so separate from how she acted throughout the rest of the novel that it comes off like a cheap cop-out; however Kastle does cover himself by having Lois already feeling a sort of psychotic break thanks to discovering Evan’s homosexual tendencies the night before. Now learning that Bley’s a “goddamn closet queen,” her hopes for Hollywood stardom are dashed, and she’s gone around the bend. But still, it comes off as too much, too late.
This was the first of a loose trilogy featuring Roersch; he appeared in Kastle’s next two novels, both of them as mentioned paperback originals: The Gang (1976) and Death Squad (1977). Finally, there was a film adaptation of Cross-Country, released in 1983; there’s no DVD, but it came out on VHS (glad I still have a VCR player!). One of these days I might check it out, just to see how far it strays from Kastle’s novel – one thing I do know is they changed it so that Judith Keel was Bley’s wife, which I guess they thought would add more tension and suspense.