Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Gang

The Gang, by Herbert Kastle
December, 1976  Dell Books

This was the first of two paperback originals Herbert Kastle published through Dell; most of his previous novels had been hardcovers. Given the late ’76 date I’m going to assume it was the oil crisis that resulted in this book being paperback only; it’s my understanding that the crisis caused publishers to revisit their entire lines, in some cases outright canceling them – the fate that befell most men’s adventure novels at the time. I guess it was only a temporary setback for Kastle, as by 1979’s awesome Ladies Of The Valley he was back in hardcover (though the paperback was also published by Dell). 

Back in 2013 I reviewed Cross-Country, the novel which preceded The Gang. As I mentioned in my review, Cross-Country started off a sort-of trilogy, with The Gang being second and Death Squad, Kastle’s other Dell PBO, being the third. However the only thing linking the novels is Detective Sergeant Eddy Roersch of Manhattan West Homicide; the events of Cross-Country aren’t even mentioned in The Gang, so reading that book first certainly isn’t necessary. In fact someone just picking up The Gang would have no idea it even is a sort of follow-up to a previous book. However there is a bit of a benefit in reading the books in order; for example, we learn here that Roersch, a 58 year-old widow, has married the former hooker who lived down the hall from him, and is about to have a baby boy with her. In Cross-Country it was established that Roersch was starting to feel more for the former pro, Ruthie, than just the occasional freebie. 

I knew something was up when Roersch was happy in his intro; no one’s happy in a Herbert Kastle novel. I’ve read a few of the guy’s books and I love his writing, but I can’t help but feel that Herbert Kastle himself was one unhappy guy. The theme is constant in his books of rage boiling just below the surface, of people ready to lash out. His protagonists are most always unlikeable pricks…like the rapist stalker protagonist in Hot Prowl. Not to read too much into the book, but one of the protagonists of The Gang is a novelist who decides to live out his crime novels by going on a kill-spree rampage. In fact I think there was a similar subplot in Ladies Of The Valley, with a screenwriter who was a serial killer or somesuch. 

Well anyway, in my earlier reviews of Herbert Kastle I wasn’t yet aware of the work of Lawrence Sanders. Now that I have read a few of Sanders’s novels and researched some others of his I plan to read, I can’t help but suspect that Kastle, like many other crime writers of the day, was influenced by Sanders…particularly The First Deadly Sin. Kastle’s style even seems similar to Sanders’s in The Gang, mixing a methodical police procedural with lurid elements. This of course is a good thing; I’m just noting, not criticizing. But then again it could just be a coincidence. It’s just that the milieu, the focus on actual detecting instead of “cop movie” style escapades, and the periodic detours into graphic sex seem to be what put Lawrence Sanders on the map. But I guess Sanders just had a better agent, as his novels were all bestsellers and Herbert Kastle’s came out as a paperback original. 

But as I’ve said before, I prefer paperback originals, if for no other reason than the cover art, which is always better than hardcover cover art. The cover for The Gang is especially cool, but uncredited. Also a bit misleading, as the lead female character, Cynthia Derringer, has dark hair. And, unfortunately, she does not wield an Uzi at any point in the story. But otherwise one of the best covers ever, and surely had to move at least a few units in December of 1976. Or maybe not, as The Gang only received this paperback printing in the US (I think it came out in hardcover in the UK, where Kastle had more fame, it seems – in fact his last novel was only published there), and now appears to be entirely forgotten. 

So back to the unlikeable protagonists. Roersch is not the main character in The Gang, which again brings to mind the work of Lawrence Sanders, in how his cop character Edward X. Delaney would be the protagonist in some novels, like The First Deadly Sin, but a minor character in others, like The Anderson Tapes. Note even the same first names for these characters: Eddy Roersch and Edward Delaney. Well anyway, Roersch does feature in much of The Gang, and is the only thing akin to a hero we get in the novel…however he has no real interraction with the main plot, despite Kastle’s valiant struggles to make it seem as if he does. Indeed, Roersch could be entirely removed from the novel and the plot would not be impacted…Kastle ensures we understand this, for some curious reason, often reinforcing how Roersch is “too late” to change the tide in several situations. 

The actual “heroes” of the book are the fucked-up losers who make up the titular Gang. A big problem with the novel is how implausible all this is, though. In fact there were times I was wondering if Kastle was spoofing Sanders, even down to the bloated page length…I mean The Gang is “only” 316 pages, but good gravy does it have some small and dense print. It sometimes seemed that no matter how dogged an effort I was putting into the reading, the book still wouldn’t get any closer to the end. And that’s the other thing…The Gang isn’t very enjoyable or entertaining. It’s kind of ridiculous and hard to buy, and not helped by its rushed conclusion. One almost gets the impression that Kastle himself didn’t believe in the book and was just bulling his way through it. 

So here is the plot: A quartet of people who have been screwed over by life in various ways decide to become “The Gang” and pull a series of violent robberies across the country, with the intent of heisting enough money to go off to South America and live like kings for the rest of their lives. But they aren’t professional thieves or even criminals…save for one of them, 17 year-old Mark Corman, who is a criminal only in that he has a juvenile record for breaking and entering and other stuff that he now regrets. His backstory is what brings Roersch into the tale, though it’s a bit hard to buy. The belabored setup has it that Mark got pulled into the robbery of a jewelry store in Manhattan in which the owner was killed, not by Mark, and Mark freaked out and took off, leaving his two comrades behind. Roersch gets the case, and given his Columbo-esque detecting abilities soon figures there’s more to it than a simple robbery gone wrong, and indeed there is. Though it has no bearing on the major plot per se. 

Meanwhile Mark’s dad, Manny Corman, a promoter gone to seed who lives in Los Angeles and hasn’t seen his son in six years, has fallen in with Bert Brown, a successful novelist in his 40s. The two men each have a casual sex thing going with hotstuff brunette Celia Derringer, a beauty with “balloonlike tits” and a “big” rear who is the kept mistress of a famous bandleader in LA. Yes, it’s all very convoluted. But long story short, Celia’s also got a thing going on the side with Bert and the bandleader suspects her – rightly, it turns out – of whoring, and has been keeping tabs on her, and shows up while she and Bert are mid-coitus. This leads to a violent confrontation in which, typical for a Kastle character, Celia’s latent rage is unleashed in full force. 

These four characters (Manny, Mark, Celia, and Bert), now on the run from the law – Manny because he’s gone on the lamb to help his son – decide to become “The Gang,” all an idea of Bert’s. The brains behind the group, Bert convinces them to form a “family,” which appears to have spawned the cover blurb comparison to Helter-Skelter. Celia herself even thinks of the Manson Family, though notes that they’re too grungy and unkempt for The Gang. But it’s all so very implausible, how these four people just suddenly decide to band together as criminals, as they have “nothing to lose,” even down to Celia becoming the “Earth Mother” for them…having sex with all of “her men!” Weird stuff for sure, and while Kastle does his best to make it all seem plausible, it just rings hollow from beginning to end. 

As I read the book I concluded that the reason it all seemed implausible was because Kastle hadn’t sufficiently set it up. Bert Brown is the originator of the idea, and we’re told it’s because he’s done some crime novels and now wants to live them out. But we’re not told anything about his books, and really the character is introduced to us shortly before he begins his criminal career, so it’s not like there’s much establishing material. Bert’s real driving force is that, a la Alex Jason in The Enforcer, he has terminal stomach cancer. The fact that he’s soon to die is what unshackles him from society’s norms and causes him to push The Gang further and further into crime. But his ensuing viciousness – gunning down a hapless waiter in an early heist – is just hard to accept. Again though Kastle tries to cover his bases; previous to this Bert was secretly a coward, and after being called out on this in the confrontation with Celia’s cuckolded bandleader it’s clear he’s driven to prove how much of a man he is. 

And yes, a theme of masculinity also runs through the novel, and while Kastle often compares and contrasts “the old days” with the novel’s present of 1976, surely he didn’t realize that masculinity itself would one day be questioned. I mean Supreme Court justices don’t even know what women are these days! I guess things were just more clear-cut in the ‘70s. One of the many subplots concerns how men can survive in this increasingly stultifying world, and also there’s a running subtext about fathers and sons. Even here though Kastle stumbles in the actual plotting, because while Manny Corman is introduced as being desperate to help his son Mark, soon enough Manny’s convinced the whole Gang idea is the only option they have…and the fact that he’s putting his son in even greater danger is just sort of brushed under the narrative carpet. As I say, the entire novel is just so implausible in so many ways. 

Meanwhile Eddy Roersch has his own shit to deal with. As mentioned he’s 58, with 30-some years on the job, and a great record with cracking cases. Even though Columbo is dissed in passing, that’s the cop Roersch most resembles, a sort of mule-headed investigator who refuses to see the “easy” case his fellow cops see and will keep sifting through details until he finds something deeper. However Roersch always “freezes” on tests, thus he’s never advanced beyond Sergeant, even though people without nearly his track record have. Such would be the case of Roersch’s new boss, Lt. Krinke, who immediately takes a dislike to Roersch; Krinke is a stickler for detail, more concerned with rules and regulations, and bridles at Roerschs’s intuition-based approach. This rivalry takes up most of Roersch’s plot, with Krinke seeming to have it in for Roersch. Oh and speaking of changing times…later in the novel a colleague informs Roersche that rumor has it Lt. Krinke might be a closeted gay, hence his animosity, and Roersch can’t believe it: “Gays in the police department?” 

The titular Gang starts small, hitting a restaurant they happen to be eating at. This is another implausible bit, as Bert realizes he needs to sort of shock the system to make the others realize that the Gang is all they have. In other words Kastle is at pains to create a twisted family dynamic, and it occurred to me that this was the same thing he did in Cross-Country (which also had characters increasingly “act crazy” at the whims of the plot). But I had a very hard time believing that Manny, whose entire presence here to begin with is to to keep his son out of danger, goes along with it, holding a gun per Bert’s order and chortling over the unexpectedly-large haul they get. From there it’s to a furtner cementing of the familial bond; Bert has it that Celia will sleep with all three men – and Celia is all game for it. In fact the novel’s most explicit sequence concerns her initial boink with teenaged Mark. 

This particular sex scene goes on for a few pages, whereas the (relatively few) others go for just a few not-very-graphic paragraphs. There’s also a weird bit where a highway patrolman inadvertently pulls over the Gang, not realizing who they are…and they get the drop on him…and Bert urges Celia to screw the bound officer. It just all seems so dispirited, and I got the impression Kastle was just going through the motions, so to speak, maybe trying to provide the lurid stuff ‘70s crime readers demanded, but his heart wasn’t in it. But Kastle certainly delivers on the lurid vibe with a random focus on sleaze – both Manny and Mark, we learn, are well-hung…something Manny is happy to learn about his boy, peeping at him over the wall of a urinal! And then wondering if it’s acceptable for a dad to talk to his son about such things! 

Regardless, the stuff with Roersch is more entertaining than the entirety of the Gang plot, even though the Roersch material lacks much action and has zero sex. It’s really just a methodical procedural, with Roersch stubbornly tracking leads in what every other cop – especially his despotic boss – thinks is an open and shut case. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a plot if there wasn’t more to the case, and Roersch’s unraveling of the web is more entertaining than the various heists the Gang perpetrates. In fact I found much of their material tedious and unwelcome. They’re just too savage to be believable; I mean on the very first job Bert is gunning down some hapless waiter. They also take up this cutesy schtick of leaving coy messages in blood or lipstick at their crime scenes; another Manson inspiration, I guess. Their hits become increasingly reckless and violent, with each member, save for Mark, becoming increasingly crazy. 

This was another thing I remembered about Cross-Country; a female character in it started acting nuts toward the end, even though she’d been relatively normal beforehand. The same thing happens here, with Celia just getting more and more aggressively schizoid, at one point almost getting “her men” killed when she starts up some shit with a waiter. (Waiters particularly seem to suffer at the hands of The Gang.) Little does Celia realize that a few armed cops happen to be dining in the restaurant, something Mark desperately tries to warn her of. Throughout all these escapades Mark is the sole voice of reason, never taking part in the actual violence; this is the thing Roersch clings to, back in New York, as he’s determined to save Mark Corman somehow. 

But the two plots never gel, despite how much Kastle attempts to make it seem like they do. Roersch, a 30-some year veteran, suddenly gets touchy-feely about 17 year-old petty criminal Mark Corman, initially just one of the subjects in Roersch’s latest case…but as things progress Roersch starts thinking of him like a father. This is another thing that upsets Lt. Krinke, leading to another face-off between the two. The cop-world detailing here is very realistic and Kastle excels at bringing to life the monotonous routine of police work. He’s clearly done his work on how the NYPD operates; perhaps his advisor was former police captain Tom Walker, author of Fort Apache: The Bronx, who provided blurbs for both The Gang and Death Squad

It's implausible how the confrontation with Krinke ultimately comes to a boil, though. However Kastle delivers a nice wrapup to this that’s touching without being maudlin (referring here to the name Roersch decides to give his son, who is born at the end of the book). The wrapup with The Gang isn’t nearly as well constructed. After various heists, The Gang is riding high – and then we suddenly learn via dialog that they’ve been spotted along a road near Peekskill, New York, shot it out with a patrolman, and are now holed up in a particular house, which is under siege by an armada of cops. This climax is basically thrust upon us with no real setup, and it’s almost as if Kastle felt the book was getting too long and decided to cut to the chase. Or it’s more indication that he himself didn’t believe in the entire premise of the book and wanted to get it over with. 

To make things worse, Roersch still has no interraction with the main plot; throughout the book he is always “too late” to do anything about the situation with Mark Corman. Again, it makes Roersch seem completely unnecessary to the novel. Hopefully he will be more integrated into the next one, Death Squad, which apparently concerns a rogue force of cops. Roersch’s storyline was I felt the best part of The Gang, which otherwise was a curiously deflated novel from Herbert Kastle. 

Great cover art, though! And also I’ll always remember The Gang as the book I read when I got Covid. Speaking of which, I apologize if any of the preceding review was hard to understand – I wrote it while I was getting over Covid, which essentially was like a bad cold for two days. But at least now I can mark “Get Covid” off of my bucket list.

1 comment:

Johny Malone said...

I like the covers Granada made for Kastle's books. Those bad girls are great.