The Sharpshooter #9: Stiletto, by Bruno Rossi
August, 1974 Leisure Books
This was #9 in the 16-volume The Sharpshooter series, but, thanks to this informative essay by Rayo Casablanca, I read it second. Stiletto appears to pick up shortly after #1: The Killing Machine, and unlike other books in the series it features Iris Toscano, voluptuous assistant of main character Johnny Rock who played such a big part in The Killing Machine, gathering intel for him and assisting in his strikes against the mob.
Given this, Rayo believes that Peter McCurtin, author of The Killing Machine, must've also penned Stiletto. However I cannot agree with that. The author who churned out this piece of garbage could not be the same as the one who gave us the genuinely-entertaining The Killing Machine.
For, sad to say, Stiletto is by far the worst men's adventure novel I've ever read. Indeed it's so bad that it could make one give up the men's adventure genre cold turkey. It's inept, poorly plotted, filled with banal dialog and plastic characters, and on the whole just plain sucks monkey balls. It's not even so bad that it's good. It's just so bad that it's...bad.
The novel opens with Johnny undercover as a hitman out of El Paso, visiting up north for a job. He's grown a moustache, wears his hair long, and darkened his skin with "Man-Tan" to complete the disguise. But within pages he's uncovered and a deliriously gory shootout ensues. This is our first clue that this is not the same author who gave us The Killing Machine. That book had action to be sure, but it wasn't as spectacularly over-the-top as the violence in this one. Each hit of each bullet is described in loving detail, complete with eyes popping out and blood and brains splattering about the walls, leaving "psychedelic art" in their wake.
Johnny was an okay character previously but here he is a cipher -- actually he's more of an asshole. Nothing matters to him but wasting mobsters. This isn't a theory, he says it several times in the novel! Johnny discovers that the mob has stolen several thousand gallons of gasoline which they plan to sell at a staggering one dollar a gallon! (Cue laughter.) I know, I know, that was a whopping amount in the early '70s, but still.
For some reason Johnny decides that this job is too big for him alone, so he drafts his Uncle Vito to help. Vito was a WWII paratrooper who now lives in a rundown house with his wife. Johnny and Iris visit the old couple, where the wife gives them both a good browbeating for breaking the law. Vito comes home, turns down Johnny's offer, and that's that. Meanwhile his wife, out cooking dinner in the kitchen, is gunned down by mobsters, who have been watching the house in case Johnny ever visited. The old lady dies, and immediately thereafter Vito says he'll help Johnny.
So let's consider this. A couple married for 30 years, the wife murdered solely due to Johnny Rock's presence. And yet Vito brushes off any blame Johnny should rightly be given. Further, consider how Vito reacts. He basically shrugs and says, well, I guess my decision has been made for me. All of the characters act like this in the novel -- they aren't even human beings, just paper-thin caricatures moved about on a wobbly chess board by an inept player. (To make it worse, later in the novel Vito buys a new car...and when it gets damaged he rants about it for a page -- more of a reaction than he gave the death of his wife!)
Perhaps the biggest victim here is Iris Toscano. A vivacious, dynamic personality in The Killing Machine, here in Stiletto she's reduced to a yes-girl. Literally. Her first line of dialog is "Anything you say, Johnny," and everything she says afterwards is pretty much just a variation of that. She barely speaks at all, reduced to less than wallpaper. There's no way the writer who created this character could've turned out the bland mockery presented here.
And to make it worse again -- spoiler ahead, but spoilers are only spoilers if the story and characters draw you in -- Iris is killed halfway through the book. Johnny's reaction? Johnny doesn't react. The death occurs during a shootout with the mob; after getting away, what does Johnny do? He washes his car. He looks out at the woods and feels "depressed" because the last time he was here, Iris was with him. It's like her death occurred years and not seconds ago. And he doesn't even mention her for the rest of the novel!
Yes, Johnny Rock is a loathsome prick in Stiletto. I wanted the mobsters to gun him down and not the innocents he dragged into his hellish life with him. He ruins the lives of many in his psychotic quest for vengeance, and yet he chalks it up as part of the job. Innocent women are killed in his attacks on the mob. His aunt is murdered because of him. Iris Toscano dies because of him. And yet Johnny pushes on oblivious. This is in no way the same character we met in The Killing Machine, and it's a shame.
I implore you to pass this one by. Everything is bad, even the action scenes, which are just the same thing over and over -- Johnny blasting at a few thugs with his shotgun. The dialog is incredibly hamfisted; the only memorable exchange is one that comes out of left field, Vito saying something about how "the pizza in this area is made by the Spanish, and their sauce is too thin."
It's so inept as to be hilarious. I mean, there are gore-packed action scenes which end, literally, with our "heroes" wondering where they should go have dinner! It's as if each paragraph has nothing to do with the one that went before it.