Thieves Fall Out
By Gore Vidal
Hard Case Crime, April 2015/$22.99
Reviewer: Kevin Burton Smith
Despite the obvious pen name (Really? “Gore”?), this guy Vidal looks to be a pretty promising pulp writers. Whatever happened to him?
* * * * *
Of course, Gore Vidal wasn’t a pseudonym, or at least not much of one — Gore was a family name, and anyway, when this potboiler came out way back in 1953, it was published by “Cameron Kay.” After the homophobic furor unleashed following the publication of The City and the Pillar (1948), the suddenly black-listed Vidal, struggling to make ends meet, pumped out four pseudonymous crime novels, three well-regarded novels featuring a PR flack turned pseudo-P.I. as “Edgar Box,” and this one, his first stab at crime fiction, proof perhaps that the cheese stands alone.
But hey, who doesn’t like cheese?
Literally just off the boat, manly American drifter Pete Wells finds himself down and out in post-war Cairo, ready to do “almost anything to make a dollar.” So he’s easy prey for a gang who rope him into their scheme to smuggle a priceless historical artifact, a necklace with a ruby as big as “a pigeon’s egg,” out of Egypt. Naturally, the thieves aren’t playing it totally straight but then Pete’s no boy scout either — he soon suspects he’s being played for a patsy.
The plot’s pretty much by the book, but the well-rendered setting (Vidal lived for a while in Egypt) is well used, and you’ve gotta love a multicultural gallery of rogues that includes a jaded but pip-pip British agent, a charming criminal mastermind right out of a Fleming novel, a piano-playing hunchback, a lusty French countess, a crooked Egyptian cop with the disconcerting name of Mohammed Ali and a sexy German lounge singer with a secret Nazi past and ties to King Farouk himself.
Oh, the era’s usual racial and cultural stereotypes are all present and accounted for (“swarthy” gets a particularly good workout), and Vidal’s piercing wit is for the most part missing, but there’s the sense he was still very much exploring new avenues. He got better, and the success of his subsequent Edgar Box books convinced him to aim higher. By the end of the decade he was cranking out scripts for stage, television and film, as well as scores of essays and non-fiction books, eventually becoming one of his era’s pre-eminent essayists and “public intellectuals.”.
But historical and literary interests aside, the book’s just a lot of fun; very much a product of its era. Not as twisted as Spillane or Thompson, or as psychologically complex as MacDonald or Whittington, but chockful of that good old pulpy flavour. Give it a Gold Medal for effort.
Of course, we could always ask Louie to do it. That man can do anything.