There's been considerable discussion today among a writers group I belong to about Harold Robbins in general and his novel THE CARPETBAGGERS in particular. Even those of you not of the geezer persuasion probably recognize Robbins' name, but you probably have to be over forty to really remember when he was a frequent presence on the bestseller lists.
I was in high school when I discovered Harold Robbins' books. The first one I ever read was THE ADVENTURERS, which I knew about because somebody brought a copy which got passed around study hall so that we could all read the dirty parts. (Just like Mickey Spillane in a slightly earlier generation.) I bought a copy of THE ADVENTURERS and read the whole thing, not just the dirty parts, and thought it was okay. This guy Robbins was a decent storyteller, and since the book did have a lot of sex scenes in it, that certainly didn't hurt anything. But then I read an earlier novel of his, A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER, and was knocked out by how good it was. The sex wasn't as graphic as in the later books, but the characters were great and the pace of the story kept me flipping the pages. Even then I knew the story was a little melodramatic, but I didn't care. I was hooked. The next Robbins novel I read was THE DREAM MERCHANTS, which was about the very early days of the movie business. It was even better, and ever since I've been fascinated by that era. (I've always wanted to write a novel about the origins of the movie business. I know it's been done to death, but I'd still like to. In fact, I have a really good outline if any publishers are reading this . . . )
Anyway, after that I read all the Robbins books I could get my hands on. THE CARPETBAGGERS was in there somewhere, and STILETTO and WHERE LOVE HAS GONE and NEVER LOVE A STRANGER. I don't remember all the titles. None of them were as compelling as THE DREAM MERCHANTS and A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER, but still I read each new one as it came out until about the mid-Seventies. Then, somehow, the books didn't seem as good anymore. Whether my tastes changed or whether Robbins lost whatever it was that appealed to me in his fiction, I don't know. But I never read any of them after that. I've never reread the ones I liked so much, either. I'm afraid they wouldn't hold up and I'd be disappointed.
A couple of years ago I picked up a new Harold Robbins book, SIN CITY. It's a novel about Las Vegas, but it's not actually by Harold Robbins at all, despite the fact that his name is on the cover. It's one of those "after Harold Robbins' death, the publisher worked with a carefully selected author, etc." efforts, meaning that somebody else wrote a Harold Robbins type of novel, perhaps based on some of Robbins' notes or outlines. I may get around to reading it someday.
Back to THE CARPETBAGGERS, which is loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes, subject of the current film THE AVIATOR. Courtesy of Bill Crider, here's a link to an article about the novel. You can read another article about Robbins by Dick Lochte here. And another one by Ian Parker here.
At this late date, I don't know if Robbins was even a good writer, let alone a great one. But when I was sixteen and sitting in study hall or in a lawn chair on the front porch of my parents' house, he was something even better -- a great storyteller.
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