Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Gore Vidal's Box Set

Vidal at 23, photographed by

Carl Van Vechten in 1948

When Gore Vidal died in July at age 86, I belatedly discovered that he had written three mystery novels in the early 1950s, under the penname Edgar Box. An inveterate mystery reader, I take particular delight in discovering mystery novels written by persons best known for other pursuits. (A favorite example is striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, who penned two mysteries in the early 1940s, the first titled, appropriately, The G-String Murders.)

Gore Vidal, aka Edgar Box, cranked out three mysteries in quick succession: Death in the Fifth Position (1952), Death Before Bedtime (1953), and Death Likes It Hot (1954). They were reissued in a single volume, titled Three By Box, in 1978. All three feature a reporter-cum-p.r. man, Peter Sargeant, as the amateur detective. Sargeant is a suave, if sometimes bumbling, sexual swordsman, almost a comic James Bond without the trappings of spydom. (Fleming’s 007, however, did not debut until Casino Royale in 1953.)

Despite its heterosexual hero, the first of Vidal/Box’s trio is an unabashedly gay—in both old and new senses of that word—romp along the lines of Oscar Wilde meets Raymond Chandler. The novel is a delicious foreshadowing of later flamboyant works, such as the outrageous Myra Breckinridge (1968), the movie version of which provided a final screen vehicle for the inimitable but often imitated Mae West, and the surreal and irreverent Live From Golgotha (1992).

Death in the Fifth Position is a surprising novel for the early Fifties for its frank, often gay, sexuality. But the treatment is not so surprising for Vidal, who had published The City and the Pillar in 1948. That novel offered a coming-of-age story about a young man coming to terms, healthily, with his homosexuality. Thus it flouted convention, which at the time regarded gay as synonymous with immoral, and so caused a scandal. The City and the Pillar was only Vidal’s third novel, and one can imagine an editor, on receiving the manuscript of Death in the Fifth Position a couple of years later, counseling the author to adopt a pseudonym for the latter book’s publication. I don’t know whether that happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Of course, it could equally be the case of a “serious” writer not wanting to be associated with something as déclassé as a mystery novel.

By contrast, the second of the trio, Death Before Bedtime, is sadly pedestrian. It is a serviceable mystery but lacks punch and pizzazz. The third, Death Likes It Hot, regains some sparkle, rather like a second wind along about midnight after an evening of hard partying. But it doesn’t measure up to the first mystery either, and I’m inclined to think that Vidal must have felt as though, after this third effort, he had gotten mystery writing out of his system. Box was laid to rest.

Still, the three novels are entertaining and, as mysteries go, intriguing. They are worth taking up, though no one could be faulted for stopping after the first one.