Friday, 3 April 2015


Thieves Fall Out is a pulp thriller Gore Vidal wrote under a pseudonym in 1952, and is reprinted now for the first time, for the first time under his own name. Apparently, not so long before he died, Vidal took a another look at what he'd written so long ago, didn't like it much, and so turned down a request to publish; it was his estate that gave permission to Hard Case to go ahead.

The early 1950s were a rough time for young Vidal. His 1948 novel The City and the Pillar, with its portrayal of homosexuality, had shocked much of America, including the books pages of the New York Times. Three novels in the next two years attracted little attention, and when they did he was generally criticised for being too prolific. But he needed money, being almost as profligate as prolific, so rather than slow down, he created pseudonyms.

His third novel published in 1950 was A Star's Progress, published in hardback by the reputable EP Dutton, as by Katharine Everard (Everard being the name of a gay club in New York). A racy look at Hollywood, it was reprinted in paperback,titled Cry Shame. It's A Star Is Born story, which draws somewhat on The City and the Pillar for one of its characters, and it's relatively frank, for the times, about ambiguous sexuality. Two years later, Vidal would publish another novel under his own name, The Judgement Of Paris, a modern re-working of the story from the Iliad, whose Paris is remarkably passive sexually. At the same time he began what became a trilogy of mystery novels writing as Edgar Box. The Box novels, also published by Dutton, are classic cozy mysteries in the Agatha Christie tradition, the amateur sleuth who's a PR man and former reporter, and a dashing hetero man about town. Once Vidal's novels became best-sellers, the identity of Edgar Box, which had never been a closely-guarded secret (Vidal wrote a cover blurb for an early Sixties paperback reissue of the series) became open knowledge.

His third novel of 1952 was Thieves Fall Out, published under the name Cameron Kay (who was a great uncle who'd been a politician in Texas). It was done as a paperback original for Gold Medal, the best of the pulpy crime publishers, and it's a competent enough effort. Vidal keeps the story moving, but the writing is utilitarian. The sex is probably more restrained than his mainstream novels, but there's enough to provide a cover artist with something to go on. The most interesting thing is that the book is set against the backdrop of the 1952 coup led by General Nasser, which unseated King Farouk and brought Nasser to power two years later, but you really wouldn't know it. Apart from creating some chaos around which the book's denoument can become more difficult, most of the politics is an offstage matter. It enters only because the hero, Peter Wells, falls instantly in love with a German woman who's reputed to be Farouk's new favourite mistress. But that doesn't actually come into play either.

I don't think you would make a link to Vidal, except in retrospect, but from that perspective there are few interesting things about it. Vidal scholars have noted that the novel begins, as many of his early books do, with Wells shaking off the effects of the night before, which sets the scene nicely. Wells is hired to do some shady business by an Englishman, Hastings and Helene, who may or may not actually be the Comtesse de Ratignac. There is a local gangster, and a more or less corrupt cop, and it's all very Casablanca. You can see Vidal having a little bit of fun with that, and especially with the breathless coup de foudre Wells finds with Anna Meuller, daughter of a Nazi war criminal.

Knowing it's Vidal, Wells' character is most interesting, because he's so different from Philip Warren, the Paris figure in that novel, or Peter Sargeant, the hero of the Box novels. There's nothing flippant about him; he's Robert Mitchum in Macao, but Vidal gives him more than just the half-track mind film noir tough guys often have. Helene is so transparent a femme fatal that Wells is wary, and Anna becomes the blonde not-so-virgin, unlikely as that seems.

But having fun with the genre doesn't make for a compelling read. You can see why Vidal wanted to leave it buried; Thieves Fall Out would not make anyone's list of the greatest Gold Medal books from that period, and there are some great ones. It's a curiosity, and Hard Case were right to bring it out. Those of us who admire Vidal's historical novels may wonder what he might have done had he taken the history more seriously, or indeed, taken the noirish pulp more seriously. But that wouldn't have been Vidal. And interestingly, the book is published with a juicy retro-Gold Medal cover by Glenn Orbik, five pages of blurb quotes about Gore's books (none of which apply to the novel in question) and no copyright details!

Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal (writing as Cameron Kay)

Titan/Hard Case Crime £16.99 ISBN 9781781167922

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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