Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gore-y Death: The Edgar Box Detective Novels of Gore Vidal, Part 1

Death legs it
Although not, to be sure, exactly on the level, in terms of fame and repute, as the works of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the short "Edgar Box" series of  detective novels by the distinguished man of letters Gore Vidal--Death in the Fifth Position (1952), Death Before Breakfast (1953) and Death Likes it Hot (1954)--also is not exactly forgotten, either.  The novels were frequently reprinted over the years since their original publication, but as of last year they had been out of print for two decades.  Now all three of the Box novels have been brought back in stylish new paperback editions by Vintage Books' Black Lizard imprint--you know, the one that also brings us Hammett and Chandler, as well as Ross Macdonald (No slouch, that Black Lizard!).

Girls with Guns: a Signet combo
Are Gore Vidal's mysteries on the exalted level of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald? The blunt answer (and Gore Vidal himself is nothing if not blunt) is no.  Gore Vidal himself terms them potboilers, claiming that each was written in eight days, in order to earn money after the critical shunning he received over the publication of his pioneering gay novel The City and the Pillar in 1948.  This story has always struck me as exaggerated: The City and the Pillar was a bestselling book and Vidal's novels continued to be reviewed in the following years in the New York Times Book Review--some of them favorably.  Still, there's no question they did not sell like The City and the Pillar--controversy could do wonders for a novel's sales back then just like today--and Vidal needed needed money, especially after buying a stately 1820 New York Greek Revival mansion in 1950.  

the sort of blurb
for which publishers yearn
Happily, along came Victor Weybright, the publisher of Signet Books (what Vidal calls "an extremely adventurous paperback series"), with the suggestion that Vidal write mysteries, in the style of Mickey Spillane, who was making a fortune for Signet with his racy and violent Mike Hammer novels.  These would be reprinted in paperback by Signet, with the same sort of titillating covers Signet used for books not only by Spillane, but also for higher-browed authors such as James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and William Faulkner.  According to Vidal, Weybright declared that with a salacious cover he could sell any book, even a "nearly unreadable" William Faukner novel like Absalom, Absalom!--though comprehensible sex and violence in the text was a plus. These Signet covers are fascinating mementos of the literary culture in the 1950s: the sort of stuff that could get Congressional committees all hot and bothered but that sold books like hotcakes.

Spillane's canny combination of sex and
violence--along with steamy illustrations--
had paperbacks flying off shelves
In the Edgar Box detective novels Gore Vidal seems not to have been interested in violence (he loathed Mickey Spillane), but he did supply the desired sex (the name Edgar Box, by the way, was derived in part from a famous "Edgar"--Vidal thought Poe, while Weybright thought Wallace).  In short, Gore Vidal clearly did his best to live up to Signet's reputation in the sex line! Ultimately the Box series as a whole is most interesting for the sex elements, plus the lightly biting, satirical tone Vidal adopts.  To be sure, as detective novels the Boxes are pikers compared to the great Dame Agatha, or, for that matter, to the hard-boiled boys Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald; though it must be conceded they do show improvement as detective novels over the course of the series (Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes It Hot will be discussed in part 2).

John Kriza of the American Ballet Theatre
was one of Gore Vidal's ballet interests
Because of knee damage he sustained while serving on a ship based in Alaska during World War Two, Gore Vidal after the war took ballet lessons as restorative therapy.  During this time he became interested in ballet and ballet dancers--particularly male ones.  With dancer Harold Lang Vidal had an affair, discussed in the 1995 Vidal memoir, Palimpsest, which also shows a photo of Vidal on the beach with John Kriza, best known for dancing the lead role in Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid.  I wondered whether Louis Giraud, the most memorable character in Death in the Fifth Position, might have been partly drawn from Lang and Kriza, but Vidal does not say.  However, Lang was known as "the Beast of the Ballet" according to Vidal, which certainly accords with the character of Louis (on this matter see below)!

Death in the Fifth Position concerns a rash of violent demises afflicting the Grand St. Petersburg Ballet Company while it is performing at the New York City Metropolitan Opera House.  Vidal's amateur detective in this novel and its two sequels is the brash P.R. man Peter Cutler Sargeant II, Pacific War veteran and Harvard graduate.  Vidal himself saw neither actual fighting in World War Two nor a Harvard degree (he published his first novel at the age of twenty), but in other ways he seems rather similar to Peter Sargeant. Like Vidal, Sargeant has a biting wit and he despises fifties Red-baiters and American police in general.  Here's Sargeant (i.e., Vidal, on the subject):

I have a dislike of policemen which must be the real thing since I've never had anything to do with them up to until now, outside of the traffic courts.  There is something about the state putting the power to bully into the hands of a group of subnormal, sadistic apes that makes my blood boil.

Gore Vidal and a really big ship
(not the one on which he served in WWII)
Sargeant also resembles Gore Vidal in being a sexual swordsman, though Sargeant's conquests are female and Vidal's were male (of Harold Lang's promiscuity during the time of their relationship, Vidal in Palimpsest writes: "This hardly bothered me, since I was almost as promiscuous as Harold"). Sargeant's frequent couplings with the ballerina Jane Garden and Jane's fetching physical features are described at length by Vidal.  

Yet much of the historical value of Death in the Fifth Position stems from the gay subject matter, which is rather remarkably detailed for the 1950s.  The star male ballet dancer Louis Giraud--who, we are informed, "started life as  a longshoreman in Marseilles"--hits on every attractive man who crosses his sight and it seems that for most men resistance is futile.  To his displeasure Sargeant becomes Louis' particular object of interest over the course of the murder investigation.  This is humorously treated by Vidal, in contrast to how one imagines Spillane would have handled it (one suspects Mike Hammer would have killed Louis in some particularly unpleasant fashion).  Here's a bit of conversation between Sargeant and his girlfriend of the moment, Jane, about Louis, which should demostrate how this novel must have been quite spicy in the day:

"[Louis] pads, you know."
"He what?"
"You a falsie: well, they say he wears one too, when he's in tights."
"Oh, no, he doesn't," I said, remembering my little tussle with the ballet's glamour boy.
"You, too?"  She sat bolt upright.
"Me too what?
"He didn't...go after you, too, did he?"
"Well as a matter of fact he did but I fought him off."  And I told her the story of how I had saved my honor.
She was very skeptical.  "He's had every boy in the company... even the ones who like girls...I expect he's irresistible."
"I resisted."

this Signet cover gives full force
to the phrase "a come hither look"
Even detection purist Jacques Barzun praised Louis in Death in the Fifth Position ("There extreme parody of a homosexual bruiser-type dancer, which is really funny because free from sniggering"), so Louis apparently is irresistible--at least as a comic character, anyway.  There are some other good amusing characters too, particularly the "elderly" (she's 51) prima ballerina assoluta, Anna Eglanova. Unfortunately the detection is not so good.  Vidal indulges himself in what can only be called an information dump near the end of the novel.  Sargeant intuits the solution (heck, who couldn't at this point), but he has no proof, since the whole thing is conjectural.  So Vidal allows his hero to literally stumble over the proof he needs. This is kind of unsatisfying if you are a detection fan!  Vidal takes the easy way out in this respect, but after all he was just a beginner in this one.

Gore Vidal (alias Edgar Box)
 gets the Signet treatment

So in all honesty I cannot recommend Death in the Fifth Position as a tale of detection.  Yet I can recommend it as an entertaining satirical 1950s American novel.  In its witty depiction of sexual farce in a ballet company confronting a murder investigation, it gives us an interesting picture of the fifties that we don't get on television!  As Peter Sargeant puts it:

[I]t's all very confusing and I intend one day to sit down and figure the whole thing out. It's like that poem of Auden's, one of whose quatrains goes:

Louis is telling Anne what Molly
Said to Mark behind her back;
Jack likes Jill who worships George
Who has the hots for Jack.

Kind of flip but the legend of our age.

this dame means trouble year round
In part 2, I will discuss Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes it Hot, where sexual content (particularly gay sexual content) is reduced and the detection, coincidentally or not, improved.  In Bedtime, Gore Vidal lets his satirical eye wander over to the political world of Washington, D. C., while in Hot, he takes on the upper crust society of the Hamptons.  Both novels essentially are country house mysteries in the classical English tradition, with the difference that both the men and women in them are something less... inhibited, shall we say?

For more on Edgar Box, see my reviews of Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes It Hot.


  1. I am currently about half way through the Vintage Books edition and am thoroughly enjoying the waspishly venomous writing. I'm sorry to hear the solution is not as good as the wittiness but am thoroughly enjoying the book and will certainly read the other two in the series. I find myself laughing out loud at the offhand commentary regarding the ballet, the police and society in general.

  2. A great post (and a truly great blog). I can remember in my youth, as a gay man and a mystery aficionado, discovering Vidal/Box in the 70s and thinking, "Okay, it doesn't exactly reflect my experience but it's a start." "Fifth Position" also re-emphasizes, to me, that Brahms and Simon's "A Bullet in the Ballet" is merely ridiculous. Simon was a great writer on bridge but a terrible mystery writer, IMHO.

  3. Ron,

    please let us know what you thought of the rest of it. I think Fifth has Box's most memorable characters, though not his best detection (if Box readers worry much about that!).


    thanks for the praise for the post and the blog! I can imagine the impact these books must have had back in the 1950s and into the sixties and seventies. I first read about them in Barzun's and Taylor's Catalog of Crime back in the 1990s and had been meaning to read, but never got around to it till these Vintage editions appeared, over fifteen years later now. The character of Louis is really funny, as Barzun wrote. Also he must have been quite different for the day from the usual depictions: a very masculine yet very gay man. In an era when, I suppose, the uber-campy Liberace was one of the few obvious homosexuals a lot of people were familiar with--and even he wasn't officially "out"--someone like Louis must have seemed really surprising.

    It's been a long time since I read Bullet in the Ballet, need to go back to that one and refresh. Very farcical as I recall.

  4. Another sidelight is that you have given us the wonderfully salacious Signet covers -- imagine trying to sell copies of The City and The Pillar with an illustration of a girl in a strapless evening gown! Signet at that time was leading the industry (along with Lion Books) in a genre that it pretty much created, the "lesbian confession" novel. (Written with more erotic intent than accuracy by authors like Lawrence Block, who later confessed that they had not yet actually met any lesbians.) Were the Box novels dipping a toe in the waters of the distaff side of homosexuality to see if they could create another genre? I tend to doubt it. I'm enough of a realist to think that this was merely a way for Vidal to make a quick exploitative buck and that he didn't have any real interest in pushing the boundaries of detective fiction, but I do think that characters like Louis were based on his own experience. (And I think Barzun had a similar lack of experience to have thought that Louis was parodic.) These novels were certainly ahead of their time in that respect, having a gay author tell a story of his own experience, unlike 1985's The Glory Hole Murders, which read to me as if the female author had never actually met any gay men. And it was nominated for an Edgar (!) where Vidal's books were largely ignored. Oh, well -- perhaps Vidal was merely too far ahead of his time.

  5. Yes, people who bought that copy of City and the Pillar may have been disappointed!

    I do think Gore Vidal must have enjoyed throwing in as much "gay material" as he did in Fifth Position. I noticed the other two don't have nearly as much of that sort of material. I don't know whether he deliberately dropped much of it or was simply "writing what he knew," which in the case of the ballet one meant bringing in a considerable gay aspect!

    I looked up Glory Hole Murders (I recall seeing this title listed in the back of some of my paperback John Dickson Carrs and having no idea what the title meant) on amazon and saw it had only two reviews, one a five star, one a one star, the latter largely on the grounds you mention.