Book review: Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal

A LOST pulp novel by Gore Vidal? Don’t hold your breath, says Allan Massie

Playwright and novelist Gore Vidal in 1961. Picture: Contributed
Playwright and novelist Gore Vidal in 1961. Picture: Contributed


Gore Vidal

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Titan Books, 240pp, £16.99

In the ordinary course of things, this novel wouldn’t be reviewed in The Scotsman. Now appearing in a series called “Hard Case Crime”, it was originally published in 1953 with the author’s name given as Cameron Kay. It was what was then known as a pulp novel, a cheap mass-market paperback sold on railway and bus-station bookstalls. But Cameron Kay was Gore Vidal, one of the finest American novelists and men-of-letters of the 20th century. What was he doing writing pulp fiction?

Well, in the first place, he was short of money. He had enjoyed a modest success with his war novel, Willilaw. In 1948 he published The City and the Pillar, a novel of homosexual love. It sold well but was severely criticised. The lovers were not degenerates, but regular all-American boys, and this was considered shocking. For the next half century in interviews on chat-shows and at book events, Vidal would recall that he was subsequently blackballed by the New York Times and that the next five novels he published under his own name were not reviewed in that newspaper or in the popular magazines Time and Newsweek. He may have exaggerated the degree of his ostracism, but the resentment ran deep.

He turned to crime, writing detective novels as Edgar Box and pulp fiction, of which this is an example. (He took this pseudonym, Cameron Kay, from a great-uncle who had been Attorney-General of Texas.) It’s what might have been a caper movie published as a novel.

In it, a young American wakes up in Cairo, after a night’s drinking, robbed of all his money. He is then picked up by an Englishman who offers him a commission. He accepts without knowing what it is, and is introduced to a beautiful woman, the Englishman’s partner in the enterprise. He is dispatched up the Nile to met the boss of the syndicate. There’s lots of vaguely sinister stuff about the Valley of the Tombs, and another beautiful girl with whom he falls in love, though this is dangerous as she may be the mistress of King Farouk. On top of this, there’s a policeman who dogs his heels and once lays an exploratory hand on his thigh (Arabs, we learn, are given to this sort of thing). At last he learns that his job will be to smuggle an antique necklace out of Egypt, though why a young naive American is heeded to do this is never made clear. Meanwhile there’s quite a lot of stuff about simmering revolution, and this is one reason Egypt is such a dangerous place.

It’s all easily written – possibly dictated – and it’s all, as Vidal must have known, great nonsense. Yet he has done a professional job. Mindful of the demands of the pulp publisher and the expectations of his readership, he has played it straight, resisting the temptation to send it up, keeping his tongue well out of his cheek.

The novel would surely have been more fun now if he had been less restrained, but the pulp publisher would probably have rejected it. Readers don’t like it when a writer doesn’t even pretend to take the genre seriously.

I can’t imagine Vidal ever gave the novel a thought after he had dispatched it. There’s no mention of it in his memoir, Palimpsest, and no good reason there should be. In any case, writing this sort of stuff didn’t, one assumes, make him much money, and so he turned to writing for television, and then film scripts for Hollywood before resuming his career as a serious novelist.

When Vidal heard of Truman Capote’s death, he quipped “good career move”. His own death in old age couldn’t be so described. He is probably more highly regarded as an essayist than as a novelist now.

Nevertheless, some of his novels surely have as good a chance of lasting as those of contemporaries and rivals such as Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow. Julian, the story of the fourth-century Roman emperor who rejected Christianity and tried to revive the worship of the gods of Olympus, is up with Marguerite Yourcenaar’s Memoirs of Hadrian as one of the finest evocations of the ancient world – and this is a field in which competition is stiff. Washington DC is a very good modern political novel, and his sequence of 19th century novels – notably Burr, Lincoln and 1876 – do for American history what Scott did for 17th and 18th century Scotland. The sequence rather tails off with Empire and Hollywood, but the first three novels are outstanding. Vidal was a great admirer of the Duc de Saint-Simon’s Memoirs of Louis XIV, His Court and the Regency, and he realised that Washington was as much a court as Versailles, and that the USA was just masquerading as a democracy.

I daresay it would have amused him to see Thieves Fall Out in print again, and he would have dismissed with lordly scorn anyone who suggested he should be embarrassed to be revealed as the author of such empty nonsense.

He was, after all, a professional and one who, in certain moods, anyway, would have agreed with Dr Johnson that nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. He needed the money. The market came calling. He obliged. As the novels he went on to write showed, it neither did him harm nor corrupted him.