Stiletto, by Harold Robbins (Dell, 1960).
Illustration by Robert K. Abbett.
After novelist Harold Robbins perished in 1997, aged 81, The New York Times published an obituary recalling how he’d “once predicted that he would ultimately be known ‘as the best writer in the world.’” It went on to quote from a 1977 interview in which Robbins, explaining his success, again bragged: “I’m the best around. No one can compare with what I’ve done. [Ernest] Hemingway was a fantastic short-story writer, but as a novelist, he could never put it together.” The Times added, though, that Robbins “did say that he admired some writers, ... among them John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, and John O’Hara. He said he also appreciated the work of his colleague in popular fiction, Irving Wallace.”
The Jewish, New York City-born Robbins is recorded as having sold more than 750 million copies of his books, counting 25 best-sellers among his half-century-long output. And no wonder: as the Times related, his storytelling followed an appealing formula.
Mr. Robbins’ novels were always gossipy, always offered a mystery of sorts and always seemed to be interminable, much to the delight of readers …Robbins’ star doesn’t sit so high in the sky as it once did, but for years after his demise, ghost-written novels were still being churned out under his brand name. And his original torrid tales, including 79 Park Avenue (1955), The Carpetbaggers (1961), and The Tycoon (1997), continue to find new audiences.
The works also frequently seemed to present a central figure who strongly resembled a famous person, like Aristotle Onassis, Howard Hughes, Porfirio Rubirosa, or Lana Turner, who, as it happens, once starred in a lavish prime-time soap opera based on one of his books.
In a Robbins novel, women were beautiful, wealthy and wanton; men were possessed of all the restraint of college freshmen, and the plots contained accounts of some randy doings, which one critic said he would not have tried to describe to anyone, not even those who had occupied his Army barracks.
(Right) Stiletto’s back cover. Click to enlarge.
Stiletto—about a handsome international playboy, Count Cesare Cardinali, and (according to the back of the 1960 edition shown above) Cardinali’s latest lover, a top Manhattan fashion model “swept with a passion so strong it consumed her, so intense it frightened her”—isn’t as familiar as some of this author’s other works. Yet it unquestionably carries his stylistic imprint. As Goodreads explains, “The story of this steamy novel centers on an amoral young Italian aristocrat with a penchant for violence who owes his extravagant lifestyle to the favors of a mafia overlord. So when he is asked to silence four witnesses due to testify against the mob, the aristocrat is more than happy to comply in a most brutal manner. Only he did not figure on a special agent—one who helped build the mountain of evidence against the organization—entering into a lethal game of cat-and-mouse with him. And the special agent is the only one who realizes that it is not loyalty, or honor, or debt that drive the young man to murder—but the thrill of the kill!”
The novel proved popular enough that director Bernard L. Kowalski shot a big-screen film from it. Released in 1969, that version of Stiletto starred Alex Cord (who I remember best from the 1973 Gene Roddenberry TV pilot, Genesis II), along with the then-captivating Swedish actress Britt Eklund, and Patrick O’Neal. Assessing the results, the Times’ Howard Thompson opined: “The surprise of this Avco Embassy release, about a young mob killer-specialist who decides to break with his sponsors, is that it could be so dull and transparent even on the level of a surface gangland narrative. What begins as a hard-knuckled exercise about underworld terror, with the law hot on the scent, finally dissolves into a tame conventional chase yarn rivaling the corniest of shoot-’em-up Westerns.” Ouch! Not exactly the caliber of response “the best writer in the world” probably expected, but there you have it.