|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.
|"SPILLANE IN MINK"
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."
"You know...like 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."
|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 is...one 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
[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.
For more on Edgar Box, see my reviews of Death Before Bedtime and Death Likes It Hot.