Harold Robbins was an author with a…. “reputation”. As successful as he was sleazy, Robbins turned to the car industry in The Betsy. The number of fictional novels centered specifically around the automobile industry is tiny-it makes conventional World War IIIs look like Harlequins in comparison.
It’s a story of sleaze, the struggles of Ford-esque Bethlehem Motors, and more sleaze. Oh, and bureaucracy as well. There’s a lot of that too. Robbins’ writing “style” can be determined right from the very start, as the first-person narrator appraises his nurse.
However, the rest of the book is a bizarre jumble. There’s the ridiculous exaggerated sleaze that everyone knows him for along with countless meetings about cars and the titular car in particular. It has the personalities of Ford, but the market share of one of the struggling “independents” like AMC, the “auto side isn’t profitable while the non-auto side is, so we want to leave the auto business” situation that characterized Studebaker, and oh yeah, the actual car companies of the past still exist as well alongside this upstart.
The impression is one of knowing the basics but not the whole. The Betsy is supposed to be powered by a turbine, making it the car version of the T-80 tank. Compared to its rivals with conventional engines, it would probably, like that tracked vehicle, offer a little more (theoretical) performance, regardless of raw power, at a lot more expense. Chrysler’s turbine car program failed. A struggling, close-to-stopping car company likely wouldn’t/couldn’t have funded it. The impending gas crisis or any fuel price increase would probably stop it, and it’s unlikely even a initial success would…
…Yeah, I’m probably overthinking things. It’s just I’ve read so much about the actual history of the actual auto industry that it feels like I’m obligated to critique it that way. But I do think Robbins threw down the gauntlet by including so many meetings and so many details.
Anyway, there’s meetings, weird sex scenes, more meetings, car scenes, even more meetings, even more weird sex scenes, flashbacks, and did I mention meetings? This unfocused narrative isn’t helped by the perspective shifting from first to third person at various intervals. While the prose is decent when not having to describe anything either tasteless or dull, the plotting is horrendous.
The obvious comparison is to Sidney Sheldon, who relished in “gilded sleaze”. But Sheldon was far more coherent in his writing and, as weird as it sounds to say it, actually more tasteful as well. Go read Sheldon instead of Robbins if you want “sleaze in high places” done better.
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