Friday, June 13, 2014

Sunset People - Herbert Kastle

Just three more victims. Random killings as all the others, despite the delightful daydreams. Then he would be safe forever. Then he would become the man he’d always wanted to be, immune from the imbecilic insults and violence the world imposed. Because he could ignore it, knowing what he knew, knowing who he was and what he had done! Could turn a blind eye and deaf ear on it all, smiling, forever smiling. And would be passionate enough, sexual enough, sure enough to handle not only the whale, but attractive women, many of them, on the side. As strong men did. As would be his right, his prize…

Jove, May 1980
Normally, I’m not a fan of serial killer novels. Typically they’re the same old plot, some loony whackjob who can’t relate to women, stalking and murdering them one by one under the cover of darkness. It’s been done so often, and so badly, that I often avoid the altogether. Besides, you can get that same story from CNN and it’s become tiresome. Sunset People by Herbert Kastle could have easily fallen into the same trap that so many serial killer novels fall into, that is, become boring by the whole cliché of the genre. Misfit loser who has spent his life feeling picked on?—Check! Domineering mother?—Check!  Browbeating sexless wife?—Check! Beautiful heroine who becomes the loser’s latest obsession?—Check! Set in Los Angeles?—Check! This novel covers all the bases. So, you might wonder why I should bother writing about it. Well, because this 1980 novel takes the old tropes and sets them up all neatly into a sleazy buffet for you, yet everything about the ingredients seem just a little off. As if the pages you’re turning echo with a quiet snickering between the lines and the joke is on you.

Maybe I’m reading way more into the novel than Kastle intended. Maybe it was written as a by-the-numbers potboiler for a buck. I have no idea because Kastle isn't explaining his motive for cranking out this 381 page bad boy. But I’m thinking there is something more to the novel than just a sleazy serial killer thrill-ride. Kastle seems smarter than that. And, after finishing the novel, I’m almost of the belief that it was an attempt at something of a satire of the genre.

Here we have Larry Admer, the fucked up cop. No, Larry Admer isn’t the brooding alcoholic mess that most cops in these novels are. Instead, he comes across as a petulant prick, by turns praising and berating Diana Woodruff, the heroine of the novel, and the sister of The Silencer’s first victim. As for actually working the case and following the clues…well Larry isn't that kind of cop. His idea of detective work is calling Diana on the phone and bitching to her about why she doesn't put out for him. After all, he reasons, Diana works in a massage parlor, for Christ’s sake! She’s just a cheap massage parlor whore he tells her. Sure, Diana consents to go out with him on a few dinner dates. But those dates are more whining and dining than anything else. It’s no wonder she doesn't put out for him; he’s a complete dick and a crummy detective to boot. And he’s supposed to be the good guy.

Diana Woodruff, the cheap massage parlor whore, is really an intelligent thoughtful young woman who has pretty much accepted that she’s meant to service men without forming any kind of long-lasting bond. This can be blamed on her dysfunctional parents, but that’s too easy a reason. Yeah, her parents sucked, but mostly, she’s got a yen for hot sex without the emotional baggage that comes with it. That’s something Admer can’t seem to quite wrap his ego around. Diana should be more likable a character but is really something of a cipher. There is no window to her soul that one can crawl in through. Until her sister’s murder, she had no anchor in life and nor oar to steer by. 

Diane’s life is mostly working night hours at the Grecian Massage Parlor and reading novels like Portnoy’s Complaint, until the night her sister is shot dead on a sidewalk off Sunset Strip. Immediately, the presumption is that Diane’s sister was a prostitute. Why else would she be out alone dressed the way she was dressed? Diana rightly figures that the cops don’t give a hoot about the death of another prostitute. So she decides to accept Admer’s clumsy advances in the hopes that she’ll learn who killed her sister, so that she can wreak vengeance on the motherfucker herself.

The Silencer, our serial killer, is so named because no one reports hearing any gunshot when he kills. It’s given away in the first chapter of the novel who The Silencer is. He’s a schmuck named Frank Berdon. A short dumpy fat loser of a guy who finds a loaded gun on the street after a mob hit goes haywire, leaving him alone with a dead guy and a loaded gun. The gun itself is a 10 shot .22 automatic with a MAC silencer. For Frank, it means 10 bullets of retribution to unload on all the sluts and bitches who've tormented him, ignored him, made fun of him…you get the idea. You can meet dozens like him on any given Saturday night at the clubs. Since the identity of The Silencer is given, the drive of the novel is watching him unravel as he shoots his way through one victim after another. The one thing they all have in common is not that they’re prostitutes, as The Silencer believes, but that they’re misguided dreamers lured to the Sunset Strip via events that abandon them to the whims of insanity. A rock star’s girlfriend, a jilted lover, an out of work actress who believes she’s the character she once played on TV, a teenage girl escaping from a rapist, to name a few. All of their stories are wrapped into the lure of the Strip, hopeless and ripe for the picking. These are the “Sunset People.”

This is the second novel by Herbert Kastle I've read, the other being The Millionaires, which I also liked. I can’t say why I liked these novels, by all reasons I shouldn't. Maybe it’s just a matter of sordid tales told well. 


  1. Hey man, there's no need to question why you like these novels -- Herbert Kastle is one of my favorite writers, if not my favorite. Last year I tracked down every one of his books, including this one, but it's not one I planned on reading soon. Not that it doesn't sound interesting, it's just that some of the others have more captured my interest.

    Ladies of the Valley aka Dirty Movies is a masterpiece, and I'd recommend that one for sure. It too features a serial killer, but it's one of the supporting characters.

    I like Kastle's writing so much I even got via the library "Brain Boy Archives," a hardcover book from Dark Horse Comics that collects the obscure, short-lived 1960s comic series Brain Boy, which was created and written by Kastle (credited as "Herb Castle"). Of course nothing like his novels but it did have a darker vibe than you'd expect from a 1963 comic about a teenager with mental powers.

    Millionaires I've been meaning to read for a while -- it's my understanding that one's a caper/heist novel, and I've always liked those.

    As ever, I really enjoyed the review!

    1. Thanks,Joe! About a year ago I got Ladies of the Valley after reading your review of it on your blog. I also got Cross Country after seeing Ed Gorman write about it on his blog - and I love 80s style teenage floozie gracing the cover! I'm looking forward to reading both of those novels. I enjoyed Millionaires probably a little more than Sunset People, even though I liked this one. I had no idea he also had a comic series in the 60s. I knew he had some sci-fi novels way back, and I have Pulp anthology with a short story of his from 1960 called "Game" in it. I'll have to re-read that story now, since I've forgotten what it's about.

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  3. I read your review of Sunset People a couple years ago, and though I immediately sought out a copy I only got around to reading it a week ago. I have to agree that Herbert Kastle was probably chuckling as he wrote it. Though it can't be described as a comic novel, there are several laugh-out-loud moments (details of the "Chief Shut-In" TV series were priceless, as was the rock star's girlfriend's response to his request for some golden shower action).

    But while Sunset People is a fun read, I consider it one of Kastle's lesser books. Sure, Kastle didn't necessarily write high-brow stuff, but the previous books of his I've read (Ladies of the Valley, Millionaires, and even Cross-Country) seemed to be written as if aimed at readers; Sunset People reads like it's directed at people who'd ordinarily just watch TV. People like, well, Frank Berdon. It does read like it would make a kick-ass, hardest of hard-R drive-in movie (though it would probably take a soft-X to do it justice). If only.

    Thanks again for reviewing this. Your and Joe's Glorious Trash blog have contributed significantly to my to-be-read pile. I'll also be tackling Harry Whttington's Blaine Stevens novel, Embrace the Wind this summer, which I also learned about from your blog. I don't think I'll be reading that one in public, though. While I don't care about being seen reading trashy novels about sex and murder, a middle-aged man reading a ripped-bodice romance might spark too many conversations that I wouldn't want to have.