With the remunerations for his literary works not keeping up with his lifestyle, the writer and intellectual Gore Vidal (1925-2012) wrote a few genre books under pseudonyms, one being “Cameron Kay” for the pulp crime novel Thieves Fall Out. Originally published by Gold Medal in 1953, it was forbidden by Vidal to be reprinted — at least under his real name — for the remainder of his life.
The cover art for the Gold Medal edition is interesting: two men, an American and, presumably a fez-wearing Egyptian, are drinking together in a Cairo bar. Their hands are almost touching, or almost not touching, when an expat woman appears on the scene, striking a hand-on-hip what are the two of you up to? posture. Vidal had turned to pulp fiction because the outrage over the homosexual themes of his 1948 The City and the Pillar kept him in exile from the major newspapers’ book sections; it’s not entirely surprising that “Cameron Kay” had this subtext in TFO, hastily written is it was.
In 2013, Hard Case Crime published TFO in hardback, featuring Vidal’s name in large lettering and a less ambiguous cover painting. Curiously, the cover also includes a blurb about Vidal being “America’s most controversial writer” from The Guardian*, a publication that, in 2013, did not see the value in having this novel reprinted. A full 60 years after the fact, newspapers were still attempting to tell us which Gore Vidal books deserved to exist.
TFO is a tale of a smuggling ring attempting to sneak a priceless necklace, an artifact from ancient times, out of Egypt for sale in Europe. A cabal of expatriates, fronted by a French woman named Hélène, recruit a stranded American tourist – a merchant marine named Pete Wells – to be the courier. Wells has no criminal history inside Cairo, and is therefore not under the watch of the law, with the notable exception of an inspector named Mohammed Ali.
Pete Wells, who is the two-fisted protagonist of the novel, is dead broke and agrees to participate. He travels to a hotel outside the ancient city of Memphis, where he meets the boss of the operation, a man named Said, and a German refugee, the beautiful and mysterious Anna Mueller. Having unsuccessfully pursued Hélène while in Cairo, he begins an intense affair with Anna, who reluctantly shares some her past but keeps her relationships with the other characters a secret.
The strengths and weaknesses of TFO are starkly obvious. Vidal, one of America’s hardest-working and most accomplished writers of his time, wrote most of this book in a professional, easily read style. This review described the prose as “smooth” and I am in complete agreement. Here, Pete Wells is scouting a bar in a rough part of Cairo:
The back of the bar was like a dim cavern with more tables, on each of which stood a bottle containing a stump of candle, unlit. They weren’t wasteful in this dive, he thought, his eyes straining through the gloom to see what was at the far end. He finally made out, at the very back of the room, a double door to the left of which was an upright piano. More tables, also empty, filled the space from the piano to the bar where he stood. It was obviously too early for those tables to fill up.
There is a sense that Vidal spent some time in pre-revolutionary Egypt, and the settings (Cairo hotels and bars, and an isolated village outside of Memphis) are evoked with chosen detail. King Farouk is described a looking more “like a dentist than a king,” hinting at his declining popular image in the years following the 1948 war with Israel. Vidal is also patient in building the intrigue, and a few chapters pass before any real action takes place. This results in some aptly realized characters, who may be viewing Wells as a unwitting patsy, or as a casual sexual partner. There is a homosexual subtext in the interactions between Pete and two others: one is obvious, and the other subtle. The two principal women come off as the most intellectually astute of the entire cast, and it’s clear that their cunning is needed for their preservation in these chaotic post-war years.
Too bad, then, that the “pulp” aspects of TFO came off so poorly. Mohammed Ali is great at following Pete but is ironically bad at fist-fighting – he loses a bout pretty badly, even when he starts with the advantage of pointing a loaded gun at his opponent. There are some scenes that appear to be filler material, such as an odd-fitting subplot involving a piano-playing revolutionary. Pete’s get-it-done romantic overtures toward Hélène and Anna may have been acceptably “masculine” for a 1950s pulp audience, but come off as nothing short of predatory.** TFO is much better at subtly subverting the genre than overtly serving it.
I also felt — as I often do about endings, I admit — that the plot’s resolution failed to do justice to the cerebral build-up of the opening chapters. The different characters seem to be in the right place at the right time, not for their own sake but for the purposes of the plot. One could argue that Pete never understood the motivations of the others very well, seeing as he spills his whole story to someone multiple times, and his point of view is has to represent a simpler version than what plausibly took place. I found the last part of the book a little too easily anticipated.
TFO is not going be known as one of Gore Vidal’s cornerstone accomplishments, but it will be of interest to those who read the pulp efforts of “slumming” literary figures. It’s a stylistically distinguished find for the Hard Case Crime label. 5/10.
* Whoever wrote that between 1953 and 2013 must have never heard of Philip José Farmer.
** The suspense of the novel does not come from the smuggling plot, or the knives and guns involved. Rather, it is whether the relationship that develops between Pete and Anna is merely the consequence of Anna needing a ticket out of Egypt before her past catches up with her.
Very nicely written. Your review, I mean.
I’ve never read much Vidal. Nor am I ever likely to. But I may give this a try. If only for that cover. The second one, I mean.
My favorite Vidal story is the one he told about the writing of Ben Hur. He claimed that he and Stephen Boyd conspired to make the title character and best friend/archenemy Messala lovers, at some point before the story begins. It’s not in the script. It’s sure as hell not in the book (which is, after all, “A Tale of The Christ.”) But it’s in the movie.
See, Vidal felt there were motivation problems with the story. Why is Messala such a prick to poor Ben? Obviously because they had a thing when they were younger, and then Ben cut it off because of his prissy monotheistic background (Note the lack of the obligatory heterosexual romantic subplot in that picture, even though there is one in the novel. Also note that the prior Ben Hur, Ramon Novarro, was gay.)
Hell hath no fury like a Roman scorned. But how to get this subtext in there for those who might appreciate it, without making it explicit, and frightening the horses, at a time when nothing ever was explicit in major motion pictures?
Gore had written this scene where the two have a conversation. He and Boyd looked for little bits of business to suggest a past relationship, and Messala looking to renew it. Boyd said “There’s a dog in that scene, isn’t there?” Indeed there was. There would be much stroking of said dog.
But according to Boyd, nothing whatsoever was said to Mr. Heston (who Vidal was not impressed by) about all this. He remained quite oblivious to all the inserted context. (I’m sure if he’d been made aware of it, his reaction would have been along the lines of “Oh. My. God.”)
I have no idea if this is true or not, and have never tried to confirm it, because I want to believe it’s true. Personally, I like Chuck Heston’s pictures more than I do Gore Vidal novels. Particularly fond of Major Dundee. But he could be awfully stuffy. If it’s a fiction, it’s a credible one. At some point, I’ll try to find out if the same holds true for this book.
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According to Vidal, I mean. I don’t think Boyd ever told this story. At least not where anybody was holding a tape recorder.
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Thanks. I don’t think Vidal was involved in screenwriting as far back as 1953, so “Thieves Fall Out” may have been one of the first examples of him putting in a subtext like that.
I read Vidal’s “Messiah” several years ago, and I really can’t remember a thing about it. I’ll have to get back to his SF some day. Not much attention is paid to his SF these days, at least from what I can see.
It does tend to substantiate his Ben Hur story, that he did this a few years earlier, in a much less visible way. I tend to think William Wyler (very straight but no dope) recognized what Vidal and Boyd had done, didn’t mind it, but was going to edit the scene in such a way as that only somebody looking for the inference would see it. Most never do, I’m sure.
Vidal had written about gay men in some depth, going back to at least 1948. Took some lumps from the critics for doing so. It wasn’t all he wanted to write about, but he would obviously prefer that you didn’t have to write a ‘serious book’ with same sex relationships as its subject, in order to reference it. You can have a heterosexual love story in a book that isn’t about sex at all. Or about much of anything. Pure escapism.
But this was hardly an innovation for crime fiction. Dashiell Hammett put several major gay characters in The Maltese Falcon. (As you’ve been reading over at my blog, this created problems for filmmakers adapting that book). Though the characters in question were hardly sympathetic, neither was Sam Spade. They were treated as three dimensional persons, however nefarious. But there was certainly room for improvement there.
Chester Himes covered the Harlem gay scene with guarded sympathy in his novels featuring Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. But perhaps most significantly a novel about an openly gay detective, The Heart in Exile, appeared in 1953. Written by Rodney Garland, a British author.
Mainstream authors often go slumming in Genreville, figuring they’ll spice things up a bit. But if they stuck around a while, they might learn something. Genre often covers controversial subject matter first–precisely because the establishment doesn’t take it seriously.
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Off the top of my head I can’t think of a mainstream author that went into genre fiction, and then went back to write superior mainstream literary fiction. J.G. Ballard started out in SF. Aldiss never really left SF, and “The Brightfount Diaries” was probably not enough to establish him as a mainstream writer in the first place. There are a lot of others which occupy the grey area of “fabulators,” between mainstream and SF.
I suppose the best place to start looking for authors who “learned something” out of a temporary stay in genre writing might be the Hard Case Crime series, actually.
I was speaking hypothetically (I don’t think you need to write genre to learn from it), but maybe Kingsley Amis?
Kurt Vonnegut started in SF, then distanced himself from it, while retaining much of what he’d learned from it. Never been much of a fan, but he’s certainly a major author.
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Amis is a good answer. “Lucky Jim” is one of my all-time favorites. The question of what he might have gotten out of working in the genre could motivate me to read more of his books.
I was inspired by Nick Jones to read The Anti-Death League, which I wasn’t entirely convinced by, but it was interesting.
One of my favorite non-genre novelists, Romain Gary, wrote an SF novel (The Gasp), but according to one of his biographers, it’s pretty bad. And not easy to find, so I will have to take the man’s word for it at present. He did write some of his best work subsequently, but also previously. Basically, I’m just saying all those lit-snobs should come down out of their ivory towers and read more genre. 😉