The Velvet Knife by Irving Shulman. Doubleday and Co. (1959), 336 pp.
Thanks to a vaguely remembered deal with producer Alex Norstram, Dick Fleming has a chance to return to Los Angeles and put his screenwriting career back in gear. He gets planning and encouragement from a new friend, Phil Hammschlager, a cherubic publicity whiz with an altruistic veneer. Phil’s obsessed with singer and actress Mary Scott, who is engaged to film star Bruce Dunlap. Dick, Phil and Phil’s father, Milton, rent an apartment in Hollywood, where they meet beautiful but unemployed model Beth Correll and her two male roommates. Dick’s way forward in his career (and in his effort to reunite with ex-wife Hilda) is pretty clear. More difficult to fathom are Phil’s goals and his methods of achieving them.
The story centers not on Dick, the narrator, whose problems serve primarily to illuminate a writer’s role in film making. Instead, the focus falls on Phil. He represents, of course, all those movie fans who imagine they actually know the targets of their affection. Readers interested in these folks may still have trouble believing that Phil could exist in any plausible rendition of real life. His quick connection to Dick seems more than unlikely; his conquest of Hollywood’s publicity machine seems much too speedy; and his personality traits seem overly diverse. Meanwhile, the ancillary characters, who are not presented in much depth, respond to Phil with an almost zombie-like abatement of free will. The book is readable but perhaps not as engaging as it ought to be.