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.