Monday, May 16, 2022

The Closing Circle

The Closing Circle, by Lou Cameron
November, 1974  Berkley Medallion

Between 1974 and 1977 prolific author Lou Cameron published five paperback crime thrillers with Berkley. The cover art for most of the books had a somewhat-similar design to Berkley’s cover art for Lawrence Sanders’s The First Deadly Sin (which was even referenced on some of the covers of the Cameron books). These five novels weren’t part of a series, but they were all about cops. In addition to The Closing Circle, the others were Barca (1974), Tancredi (1975), Dekker (1976), and Code Seven (1977, but this one dispensed entirely with the cover design of the previous four books). Each of them were also fairly long, coming in around 250 pages. 

If The Closing Circle is any indication, Cameron’s goal for these books was realism, gritty cop-world realism that left no sleazy stone unturned. I’m not sure about the other books, but this one is not an action thriller by any means; it is a slow and methodical procedural, one that is livened up by Cameron’s focus on the lurid. He brings mid 1970s New York City to life in all its tawdry, grimy splendor, and he certainly captures the grizzled cops who patrol its streets. Our protagonist is Lt. William Garth, “a cold-eyed white man of about thirty-nine or forty,” per Kitty Hot Pants, a “high-yellow” black streetwalker who appears early in the book. “High-yellow” is a term I have only seen infrequently; I would imagine it is considered racist now, and assume it was a way that light-skinned black people were referred to at the time. I’m sure I’ll be headed back to sensitivity training for even wondering about this. 

But then, the racism is thick throughout The Closing Circle, courtesy the other cops on Garth’s force. This too is certainly a quest for realism on Cameron’s part; these are grizzled cops who don’t give a shit when they’re done for the day. One of them, a sergeant named Crosby who used to be Garth’s partner, bluntly states that he could care less about the latest serial killer when he clocks out for the day. Crosby also refers to a Hispanic colleague as “the Spic” and, when he sees Garth talking to Kitty Hot Pants and a new “colored” probationary patrolman named Till, Crosby asks Garth, “What’s with you and the spades today? Martin Luther King Day or what?” Crosby is not alone; there are racial slurs throughout the book. And for that matter, Garth himself is certain that the serial killer he’s hunting isn’t white, because the kills are happening in a white area that “resents” the encroaching black population – and the serial killer is moving around freely, meaning the white residents trust him. I found this very interesting from a historical perspective, given that we live in an era that has become so emasculated that, even when there’s an active black shooter afoot, his race is not mentioned

And speaking of lurid, move over William Crawford – we’ve found an author who seems even more obsessed with characters shitting themselves. Seriously, if there’s one thing I learned from The Closing Circle, it’s that you shit yourself when you’re strangled to death. Cameron reminds us of this many, many times. And he doesn’t just tell us. He has Garth and the other cops enthusing over the amount of shit at the crime scenes; “We really shit ourselves when we’re strangled!” Garth even exposits at one point. I mean we are told this again and again. Each and every single time the killer strangles a woman, we are informed she shits herself before dying. In the cases of the corpses the cops discover that are clean, we’re informed that the body must’ve been moved after death and then cleaned off – for, sure enough, the shit’s all over the place where the murder actually occurred. I mean William Crawford had an obsession with characters shitting themselves in his books, but Lou Cameron takes it to a whole different level. To an extent that I found myself questioning it…I mean honestly, let’s say you went to the john shortly before being strangled to death. Would you still shit yourself? These are the sort of questions I found myself wondering during the course of The Closing Circle

Adding to this lurid vibe is the killer himself. Now an issue with The Closing Circle is that it truly is methodical; Cameron really wants to show how an investigation is handled in the real world, with Garth and his fellows going over all leads, researching all clues, and putting forth theories. The only problem is, we readers know from the get-go who the killer is. Hell, the back cover tells us: it’s a “professional exterminator” named Kraag. And that’s in the literal sense; he’s not like a Syndicate contract killer but a guy in a uniform who goes around apartment buildings killing bugs and rodents. Cameron tries to get in Kraag’s mind, but he doesn’t come off as fucked-up enough for the crimes he commits. Basically, the sick bastard’s m.o. is that he strangles the old women in the apartments he handles, gives their corpses a bath, and proceeds to “bang them all three ways,” leaving their defiled corpses for the cops to find. And yet in the scenes from his perspective, Kraag isn’t nearly twisted enough…he just clearly hates women and thinks they’re more obedient when they’re dead. I mean sure, he’s twisted, but we aren’t talking like a wackjob personality-wise; he comes off more like a grumpy idiot, and we never even get a good idea of what led him to this particular serial-killer approach. 

Well anyway, it kind of ruins the suspense because we know what Kraag’s up to, but we’ll keep spending a lot of time with the clueless cops who try to put the puzzle pieces together. And unlike Crosby, our hero Lt. Garth is determined to find the killer, even working off duty. Kraag has already made a few kills when the novel starts, all of them the murders of old ladies in apartment houses around 72nd Street and nearby. The opening of the book is probably the highlight, as it comes off like a grungy ‘70s cop flick, with Garth bringing in veteran street hooker Kitty Hot Pants to ask if she’s seen any unusual dudes on her beat, given that she works the area in which the kills have occurred. We also get mentions of the “pussy patrol,” ie the NYPD vice squad. Again, a far cry from the domesticated demeanor of today’s police forces; The Closing Circle is populated by mostly-white detectives who sit around smoking and drinking all day and hurling racial slurs with aplomb. They also make poor choices throughout; Crosby in particular makes some dumb moves when Garth is temporarily removed from the case. 

Cameron was a veteran crime writer, and I suspect he enjoyed getting risque here. Even the dialog between Garth and the M.E. follows the overall lurid angle of the novel; there’s a part that goes on for pages where they discuss how guys “cream less” as they get older – the seminal fluids left at the crime scenes indicates that the perp is likely a middle aged man, and this gets Garth and the M.E. going on about the lessening of, uh, emissions as time goes by. There’s a lot of dialog in The Closing Circle, though, much of it recapping things we readers already know, but the majority of it retaining that same sleazy vibe. It seems clear that Cameron wanted to write a police procedural in the exploitative vibe of contemporary crime novels; perhaps Lawrence Sanders’s work itself was an inspiration, and not just a cover blurb. It goes without saying that Cameron didn’t reach the success levels of Sanders, as his sequence of Berkley crime novels seems to be forgotten today. 

The setup is that Kraag scopes out his victims when on exterminator calls, and then weeks or days later will go back to the building, get in the apartment on the claim that he’s here to finish the job…and then he’ll strangle the old woman from behind, wait until she shits herself, give her a bath, and then start raping her corpse. As mentioned Cameron tries to capture Kraag’s twisted mind, usually via crudity. Like for example when Kraag thinks what it would be like to rape a woman he’s planned as a future victim: “But she was so old her boobs would flop all over the place like empty sacks of shit.” The back cover hyperbole has it that Kraag himself will get caught up in an evil worse than even he is: this is in reference to Cynthia Dean, a “brassy blonde with a Miami tan. Cynthia Dean (and Cameron constantly refers to her by her full name) is the manager of the company that owns the apartment buildings that the killings have occurred in (the company also owns its own exterminator service). She’s the one who figures out one of her own men is behind the killings. However she has plans of her own, leading the narrative in an unexpected direction. 

At 255 pages, there’s a lot going on in The Closing Circle. Garth is not married, and Cameron tries to work in a romance subplot, but it too follows the same grim-eyed vibe as the novel itself. One of Garth’s top suspects is a 19 year-old kid named Randy who is mentally retarded and who was locked up for exposing himself to kids at a playground. Randy has a social worker named Sandy, a hotstuff babe Garth takes to, and they end up going on a few dates. The two like each other, even though Sandy is a social worker and she knows cops hate social workers – indeed, cops hate all “bleeding heart liberals.” Again, compare to today. I should mention here that, despite the ultra-lurid tone, there is no sex whatsoever in The Closing Circle. Spoiler alert, but Garth never scores with Sandy. And while I don’t consider rape scenes to be “sex scenes,” I should also note for the sake of thoroughness that all of Kraag’s assaults occur off-page. So this too is similar to William Crawford in that we can learn about all sorts of sordid stuff via the dialog, but when such material actually transpires the author quickly cuts to another scene. 

The focus on realism means that The Closing Circle also lacks much action. There’s a random part, midway through the novel, where Garth gets in a shootout. This part is very unexpected, as he happens to be on a date with Sandy…and sees a guy who is wanted in connection with a cop-killing. The guy fires at Garth, who takes him out in the firefight. All told, this sequence is over and done with in the span of a few sentences, and Cameron is not one to dwell on the violence of the shootout. Instead, the greater ramification is that Ballistics takes Garth’s gun and he’s put on temporary suspension while the “paperwork” is filled out – the cop-killer was from out of state, and thus there’s an extra layer of red tape Garth must overcome in order to get his gun back and be put back in charge of the serial killer case. So we can see here that Cameron’s goal is not a Dirty Harry type thriller but a realistic procedural; we’re even given occasional breakdowns of how the NYPD runs, with Cameron at one point baldly expositing through the narrative that the plainclothes detectives (aka “Clothes”) are the “true workhorses” of the entire force, even though they rarely get any recognition. 

Things really pick up when Kitty High Pants returns to the narrative…and ends up whoring out to none other than Kraag himself. This part isn’t much explained; we’ve been told through the endless theorizing-exposition bits that the killer (ie Kraag) is probably afraid of women (thus he always kills them before raping them), and likely wouldn’t rent a hooker. And yet Kraag does, and despite his racism there’s no mention made of how Kitty is black. Instead Kraag is excited that he can “bang her all three ways” for thirty bucks. But he does his usual thing (off-page), and given that Kitty was the favorite of a black underworld type, we soon have a Black Mafia contract out on the killer. This leads to fun stuff that seems to be from another novel, like when two black contract killers sit around in Manhattan on the lookout for Kraag and argue over how they can walk around in broad daylight with a shotgun. With the infamous “n-word” liberally employed by these colorfully-named underworld types as they bicker and banter (and try to kill each other), it gives the entire thing a sort of proto-Tarantino vibe…but probably was just another “inspiration” from Sanders, given how he too seemed to populate his book with a host of underworld characters. Again, I get the impression that these Cameron books were devised by Berkley itself, with the publisher probably trying to capitalize on the success of its Sanders paperbacks. 

Cameron’s other theme appears to be necrophilia. I mean necrophilia and shitting yourself are the two central ideas of The Closing Circle. Randy, the mentally-retarded kid Garth incorrectly assumes to be the serial killer, gets his own taste of necrophilia in a super weird scene where he accidentally kills a woman…and then starts exploring her body. This ultra-twisted sequence does lead to unexpected consequences in the finale, but again it’s another indication of Cameron seeming to enjoy the freedom crime writers had in the ‘70s. Oh and I forgot – even here in this sequence with Randy, the dead female also shits herself after being (unintentionally) strangled. I mean seriously! But as I was saying, this bit leads in an unexpected direction; Cameron, despite wanting to show thorough police work, also apparently wanted to demonstrate how thorough police work can lead to incorrect conclusions. An annoying thing about The Closing Circle is that its unsatisfying climax prefigures The Zodiac Killer, with fate and coincidence trumping police work. 

Sleazy mid-‘70s New York City is fairly well captured, though Cameron mostly sticks to the Upper West Side; Needle Park factors into the novel a lot. This so-called area, near 72nd and Broadway, was a favored spot for heroin users at the time, hence the name. There are also two separate scenes in a 42nd Street porn theater, but otherwise Cameron keeps the topical details few. In other words the city itself isn’t practically a character, like it is in Nelson De Mille’s Ryker and Keller cop novels. The ‘70s vibe is well captured, though, with the streetwalkers and pimps and whatnot, and also Johnny Carson gets mentioned a few times. I’ve always loved Carson and remember staying up late in middle school in the mid to late ‘80s to watch his show…I recall being super bummed when the school year would start and I wouldn’t be able to watch Carson anymore! Surely no kid today is staying up to watch the annoying dweeb who currently hosts the show. 

I think I have all of Cameron’s other crime novels for Berkley. They don’t all take place in New York, and it looks like some of them might be more action-focused than The Closing Circle, but that could just be the misleading back cover copy. Not that The Closing Circle is boring. For what it is, it’s very well done: a probing police procedural with a super sleazy overlay. But it certainly could’ve been tightened up. Garth is removed from the case for like 40 pages or so and we read as secondary characters try to make sense of the killings, and all this just seems to be a means to pad out the pages. But if you are into grimy ‘70s crime fiction like I am, I believe you’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of The Closing Circle.

1 comment:

Graham said...

Pure speculation on my part, but that blurb could have been the publishers fault. Although I have read some 'self-published-on-Amazon' murder mystery fiction which does commit the mistake of having the reader learn who the killer is before the protagonists in the novel do.