Murder, he wrote, before becoming a man of letters

Book Review

March 25, 2011|By Diane White
  • Gore Vidal wrote three mystery novels under the name Edgar Box.
Gore Vidal wrote three mystery novels under the name Edgar Box. (SALVATORE LAPORTA/REUTERS/file)

DEATH IN THE FIFTH POSITION, 224 pp. DEATH BEFORE BEDTIME, 224 pp.

DEATH LIKES IT HOT, 192 pp.

By Gore Vidal, writing as Edgar Box, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, $15.95 each

In the early 1950s Gore Vidal wrote three mystery novels under the name Edgar Box. Now Vintage Crime has reissued them in separate volumes. The Box novels are minor works in the career of a writer who would become a versatile and prolific man of letters, but Vidal’s style — witty, literate, mischievous — is unmistakable. The novels are satirical comedies, and reflective of their time.

In an introduction Vidal explains that the mysteries came to be written after his third literary novel, “The City and the Pillar,’’ about a homosexual love affair, was rejected by The New York Times on moral grounds. The Times also declined to review his next five novels. He turned to mysteries at the suggestion of Victor Weybright, an editor at Dutton who was known for publishing mass paperback series of novels by authors who ranged from William Faulkner to Mickey Spillane. Vidal writes that Weybright had Spillane in mind when he suggested he write mysteries. “I said that I didn’t think I was sufficiently stupid to be a popular author, but he said, ‘You’ll find a way.’ ’’

Edgar Box was born, along with Peter Cutler Sargeant II, the amateur detective of the series. Sargeant, a young New York public relations man, is a Harvard graduate and former newspaper reporter. He’s quick-witted, observant, and able to blend into just about any situation. He’s also flagrantly heterosexual. Some passages were criticized as too racy at the time the books were published. However, there are occasional sly hints of the author’s sexual preference, as at the start of “Death Before Bedtime’’ when Sargeant happens to meet a former girlfriend on a train bound for Washington, D.C.

“ ‘You know, I’ve never gone to bed with a man on a train before,’ she said, taking off her blouse.

“ ‘Neither have I,’ I said, and made sure that the door to the compartment was securely locked.’’

Vidal confesses to being “heavily reliant’’ on the works of Agatha Christie. Her influence is apparent in the number of red herrings scattered about the plots and in the way the author lays out clues for his readers. Vidal, though, is a far more amusing writer than the Grande Dame of mystery. Some of his characterizations are little masterpieces of nastiness.

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