Kiss Kill, by Roy Sorrels
April, 1990 Pinnacle Books
For a book with a cover blurb by none other than Lawrence Block, Kiss Kill is very obscure these days, and likely went under the radar even back in 1990. I discovered it a few years ago, and only because I was searching for everything Pinnacle published in the late ‘80s, once the imprint was run by Zebra Books. This was also how I discovered the similarly-obscure Steel Lightning series. But it was only recently that I actually picked up a copy of Kiss Kill, given that I’ve been on a bit of a “cop thriller” kick. It sounded interesting, even if it was outside my safe space of ‘70s crime-pulp…I mean 1990 seems “new” to me, given that I pretty much live in the 1970s.
But other than an occasional mention of fax machines, crack, or a character wearing a Batman T-shirt (those were incredibly ubiquitous at the time – in fact I remember a female comedian at the time saying that she didn’t plan to actually go see the Tim Burton film; she’d just see it frame by frame on the T-shirts of the people who passed by her on the street!), Kiss Kill could just as easily be set in the ‘70s. Actually, the novel is most reminiscent of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s revisions Nelson DeMille did of his Ryker and Keller books, ie The Smack Man and Night Of The Phoenix. Just as DeMille took the grungy midtown Manhattan of the original ‘70s books and updated it to the grungy Lower East Side of the late ‘80s, so too does Kiss Kill mostly occur in this downtrodden area. In fact Midtown and Times Square are rarely mentioned, with most of the action taking place along Third Avenue and environs.
And this is truly a “New York” novel. Author Roy Sorrels is certainly familiar with the city, and brings it to life in all its tawdry splendor. I’m no expert on the city – again, the New York that exists in my mind is the one I read about in novels from the 1970s – but I was always under the impression that New York cleaned up its act by the ‘80s. Kiss Kill dispels that notion, and it would appear that 1989 (the year the events seem to take place) was just as tawdry as, say, 1974. It would appear that the city didn’t really clean up its act until Rudy Giuliani was elected in 1994, after which all those tawdry places became Disneyfied. Now that I think of it, Steel Lightning also took place in this same grungy, immediately pre-Giuliani Lower East Side.
But let’s get back to how scarce Kiss Kill is, with so little detail available about it. There are only two reviews on Amazon as of this writing, the first just a rehash of the back cover copy, the other by a person saying it’s “the best mystery/suspense novel” they’ve ever read. Speaking of the back cover copy, what’s funny about it is that it sort of gives an idea of the plot, while being very misleading; it was certainly written by some editor at Pinnacle/Zebra who only gave the book a cursory glance. Here it is:
So there was no other info I could find about Kiss Kill than this, no Google Books listing with a Snippet View of the contents (no Google Books listing at all, in fact). Nothing to go by other than that back cover. In fact I kept wondering if the “lover” mention meant that the hero cop Duggan was gay; it’s my understanding that “lover” was a term used mostly by the gay underworld before all the straights co-opted it. (Humorously, as if somehow predicting my incorrect assumption, Duggan informs a character in the first few pages that he is not gay!) So I took a gamble and ordered a copy of the book – scarce as mentioned, but luckily not overpriced, at least not yet. It was pretty much what I expected, an overlong Pinnacle/Zebra book of the day (320 pages), with the embossed cover…and I admit, I was a little bummed when I discovered it was in first-person. As anyone who has spent just a little time here will know, I prefer my pulp in third-person.
But man, I was not prepared for how much I would enjoy Kiss Kill. I mean I planned to take it to work and read it during lunch, or whenever I felt like leaving my desk…and I ended up doing that and also taking it home with me to keep reading it there. I finished the book in a few days. And sure, it has some problems…I mean the length is a major problem, as one can detect that Sorrels was given a big word count by the publisher and thus had to pad a bit, resulting in a little repetition. But other than that the book was pretty much everything I could want in a novel about a cop taking on a serial killer. Plus snuff flicks!
There was also the mystery of the author. I could find nothing about Roy Sorrels other than that he’d published another fat Pinnacle paperback the same year, a horror novel titled The Eyes of Torie Webster. (In a cool bit of connectivity, Torie Webster is mentioned on page 98 of Kiss Kill, a “local newscaster” in New York – surely the same character as the titular Torie Webster of the other Sorrels novel, who per the back cover is a newscaster.) I found a FictionDB listing which misleadingly implied that “Roy Sorrels” was the pseudonym of a female author named Anna McClure. But as it turns out, it’s the other way around: per this 1985 UPI article, “Anna McClure” was the pseudonym Roy Sorrels, a literature professor, used for his Romance novels, which he started writing at the behest of his wife. It seems clear though that Sorrels found more success under his pseudonym, given that he only published these two obscure Pinnacle books under his real name.
Now let’s take a look at the also-misleading back cover. Reading that, I got the impression that Kiss Kill would be about a bitter, lone (and possibly gay!) cop wandering the neon streets of Manhattan in search of a serial killer who preys on prostitutes, like a late ‘80s take on Without Mercy. As it turns out, the fact that Phil Duggan’s “lover” was killed in a shootout is incidental to the story at best, and only mentioned once or twice. And yes, the lover was a she – Duggan commited the “sin” of falling in love with his female partner, and they planned to marry, but she was killed in a shootout. Duggan, who as stated narrates the novel, is a 15-year veteran of the force, and when we meet him he’s already part of the Undercover Squad, along with a few other cops, and he’s already on a case: posing as a taxi driver as bait for a serial killer who is killing cab drivers across the city.
What the back cover copy doesn’t make clear – and the copy is masterful in how it captures the reader’s interest but gets so much about the novel wrong – is that it’s Duggan’s new “lover” who is the first victim of another serial killer, and Duggan goes off the books to find the killer. Now, I’ll try to refrain from my usual spoilers here, but this isn’t a spoiler – we know on page one that Duggan’s woman, a former streetwalker named Mary, is dead, as the novel opens with Duggan providing her ID in the morgue. Indeed, we learn later in the novel that it was the newscast of Torie Webster that even alerted Duggan that the corpse of a torture-killed Jane Doe was found in an alley, and Duggan had a sixth sense that it was his missing girlfriend.
From there we go back a few weeks to the various “meet cute” incidents in which Mary became a short – but meaningful – part of Duggan’s life. First he gives her a free lift while driving his cab, Mary running from some fat guy she claimed just hit her, though later we’ll learn she actually took the guy’s wallet. Duggan takes her back to her apartment, which is in an otherwise-vacant building, and ultimately turns down her offer of sex in exchange for the drive. (Mary being the character Duggan tells he’s not gay, by the way – she questions why he’d turn down a free lay.) Somehow Mary gets under Duggan’s skin and he keeps thinking about her, looking for her on Third Street and ultimately starting up a relationship with her, with Mary moving in with Duggan in his cramped apartment in the Village.
The relationship is a bit hard to buy, but then falling in love itself is inexplicable, so I didn’t have too much of a problem with it. Mary however is a bit too flighty and flaky; she has a hard time remembering Duggan’s name and seems spaced out all the time, despite not being on drugs. She is also a supreme liar, telling Duggan a host of tall tales about her past. Duggan will have to sift through these lies when he investigates who killed Mary. Some of this plays out in memorable ways, like Mary – who by the way is only 20, or even younger – claiming that her dad was a famous wrestler, who would beat her unmerciful. Duggan tracks the man down in Jersey, only to find a rail-thin drunk who has gone to seed…a guy who lies just as much as his daughter did, and who also apparently raped his daughter.
Mixed in with the blossoming Duggan-Mary relationship is the assignment Duggan is currently working on, the taxi driver killer. Sorrels thanks a host of cop-world figures at the start of the book, and it’s clear he did his research. The first half of Kiss Kill is a probing police procedural steeped in realism and detail. Sorrels populates the tale with grizzled cops working out of a Village precinct, peppering the narrative with their random oddball stories. It’s humorous stuff, but not nearly as egregious as the “cop tales” that made up Hellfire. And it’s very much a procedural, with no random action scenes; Duggan informs Mary that most cops don’t even take their guns out, and he personally never fires his .38 in the course of his actual investigation.
But by page 100 we get back to the opening sequence, of Duggan identifying Mary’s corpse, and from here Kiss Kill takes a new tack, with Duggan investigating on his own. The detectives who got Mary’s case have no interest in finding out who killed some nobody street whore, and Duggan’s boss refuses to loan him to that precinct so Duggan can investigate it himself. It’s here that the Duggan-Mary thing becomes hard to buy, as Duggan informs us that only “idiot cops” fall in love with hookers; sure, they can take freebies every once and a while, as long as the sex is discreet, but only a fool would fall in love with a hooker. But Duggan is a fool, and he loved Mary, and he’s determined to find out who slashed her throat and dumped her corpse in an alley. So he tracks down the clues in his off-time.
The back cover is accurate in this, as Sorrels well brings to life the street people of the Lower East Side. Duggan makes his way through an assortment of drug addicts, drug pushers, pimps, and whores as he tries to figure out who would kill Mary and why. The procedural vibe remains; despite his grief Duggan does not rush into the fray and takes his time tracking clues and evidence. There’s also a long discussion with the M.E. who autopsied Mary’s corpse, and we learn she had sex shortly before she was killed, was then chained up or handcuffed (apparently willingly), and then was sliced innumerable times by a blade so that she bled profusely, before her throat was ultimately slashed.
A curious thing about Kiss Kill is that it isn’t overly graphic. Mary’s corpse – and the corpse of the second girl to be murdered – is not even described, and the few action scenes operate more on an emotional spectrum than a visceral one. The sex too is fairly inexplicit; there’s none of the exploitation of Mary or the other hookers Duggan encounters, and perhaps the most explicit scene in the book is a random bit midway through where Duggan has sex with a cop groupie who picks him up at a bar. Here we learn that Duggan, uh, “pulls out” before finishing, given that he’s lost interest in the whole thing. Duggan is a lot more emotional and introspective than your typical cop protagonist, not that this stops him from kicking a little ass.
There’s a lot of that cool crime novel stuff I always enjoy, with Duggan infiltrating the criminal underworld and working his way around as he seeks his goal. We get a part where he buys a gun from a dude who sells crack to elementary school kids(!), and later on Duggan tangles with a pimp who goes around with a trio of rottweilers. All this stuff takes precedence in the narrative, but to his credit Sorrels doesn’t forget about the other case Duggan’s working, with the killer targeting cabbies. Again to his credit, Sorrels plays this out realistically as well, having buried clues early in the novel, clues which bear out with the uncovering of the killer’s identity. But with this disposed of, Duggan is free to pursue his own personal case.
For a veteran cop who has seen it all, Duggan’s a little slow to figure out what happened to Mary. When another young girl is found dead in an alley – a girl Duggan’s met in his investigation – Duggan knows it’s the work of the same killer. Ultimately he’ll discover that it all has to do with the illicit world of adult films…and it isn’t until Duggan literally sees the videotaped evidence that Duggan realizes it’s snuff films in particular. Duggan has a contact who runs a newstand, and this guy tells Duggan that “back in ‘76” there was a movie released in mainstream theaters which claimed to be a snuff film, but was clearly fake – presumably this is the real-world movie Snuff being referred to. But now someone is doing the real thing, and Mary was the unwitting performer; the embossed cover art, then, is indication that at least someone at Pinnacle read the book, what with the “film strip” angle.
Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers; I’m only writing this paragraph in case others who have read Kiss Kill would like to discuss. Duggan finds the place that secretly made the snuff film Mary “starred” in, and it’s run by a hotstuff brunette who makes mainstream porn films…and who appears to have stepped out of a pulpier novel. Her name’s even Venus! Duggan, preposterously enough, manages to get a part in the latest mainstream porn film Venus is making, ransacking the place for evidence of snuff when no one is looking. At last he uncovers the videotaped murders of Mary and the other girl, but when Duggan gets the upper hand on Venus and the guy who “starred” in the two movies (ie the actual murderer)…Duggan calls in the police, and there follows a harried finale in which we learn that Venus and her colleague are given twenty-five years to life, “the maximum sentence.” While this I guess is believable given that Duggan’s a cop who upholds the law, I felt it was disappointing. I mean I wanted Duggan to waste them.
Anyway, end spoilers. I can only say again how much I enjoyed Kiss Kill, I mean I was really caught up in it. Yes, some of it could have been cut, and there was a bit of repetition; for example Sorrels drops a wonderful phrase early in the book that Duggan’s nervous, and it feels like two kids learning to skateboard in his stomach. Unfortunately he repeats the same line later in the book. 320 pages of smallish print is a lot of words, and I could detect at points that Sorrels was trying hard to meet a requirement; the same thing that plagued those Steel Lightning books. I have no evidence but I’m certain Pinnacle/Zebra insisted on a big word count; just look at the bloated Doomsday Warrior books. But the fact remains that Roy Sorrels is a helluva good writer, so you don’t really mind – I’m almost even tempted to check out The Eyes Of Torie Webster, even though I haven’t been on a horror-novel kick in years.
It's a damn shame Kiss Kill is so obscure, and that Sorrels himself is an unknown. I tried looking him up but couldn’t find anything; I even went on Facebook but had no luck finding him. It would be cool if some publisher brought Kiss Kill back into print, like Brash Books or someone. I highly recommend this one; it brings to life the crime-ridden, pre-Giuliani Lower East Side, features a host of memorable characters and dialog, and is narrated with just the right amount of literary aplomb – not to mention a good bit of dark humor. So then I totally concur with Lawrence Block’s succinct cover blurb: “Bravo!”