Of all the American writers who’ve had their lost pulp work revived by Hard Case Crime, I’ve got to admit the last one I expected to see was Gore Vidal. An erudite storyteller and devastating essayist, Vidal’s public persona was so upper class that the thought of him cranking out a potboiler for the likes of Gold Medal Books definitely creates some cognitive dissonance.
Yet Vidal, in the early fifties, was in desperate straits as a writer. His landmark gay novel, The City and the Pillar, had so outraged the literary blue noses that his only recourse was to write genre fiction under pseudonyms: three mystery novels were published the nom du plume “Edgar Box,” while this fourth work, Thieves Fall Out, appeared under the byline of “Cameron Kay.” Vidal let the Box books eventually get published under his own name, but Thieves was treated like a bastard child.
It’s easy to see why. The Box books may have been trifles, but they contained the writer’s wittily urban voice; Kay’s work, though, is hastily crafted pulp. Some small traces of Vidal can be seen at times: his descriptions of his setting – Cairo in the early fifties – reveal this worldly writer’s eye for detail, for instance, while his occasional comments on the region’s politics are typically sardonic. His story, however, contains little in the way of surprise.
Thieves concerns a down-on-his-luck American, Peter Wells, who gets involved with a variety of nefarious types plotting to smuggle a priceless artifact out of Egypt. An ex-soldier whose impulsiveness regularly gets the better of his smarts, Wells becomes entangled with two deadly dames (one the former mistress of a Nazi stationed in Egypt during the war, the other the daughter of a Nazi commandant at Dachau), an unscrupulous Britisher, an Egyptian crime boss and the inevitable corrupt police inspector named (amusingly) Mohammed Ali. Outside this familiar cast is a grotesque hunchbacked piano player named Le Mouche who I kept visualizing as a heavily made-up Peter Lorre.
Much of the book is devoted to our hero getting threatened or deceived by the players in this smuggling scheme – all while juggling his attraction between the sultry dark-haired temptress Helene and the seemingly more innocent blond Anna. Though we (and Pete) know he is being played for a patsy, the full extent of the deception doesn’t become clear until the book’s denouement set as Cairo goes up in flames in an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the despotic King Farouk. A few plot threads (like an Egyptian curse) are brought in only to be dropped, while our hero’s anticipated showdowns with the primary villains are presented with much less flair than the book’s riot scenes. I know the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but for the sake of the story, the writer ought to act as if they do.
Still, I gobbled up this lightweight tale of Middle Eastern chicanery, even if I anticipated every plot point. While it may never be acknowledged as little more than a curious blip in the career of this frequently controversial writer, Thieves Fall Out provides a diverting glimpse into the ways an emerging literary figure can adapt to the demands of being a Paperback Writer.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1781167923]