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Book Review

Murder, he wrote, before becoming a man of letters

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)
By Diane White
March 25, 2011

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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.

In each novel, Sargeant is hired to do public relations and ends up investigating a murder or two. In “Death in the Fifth Position’’ picketers are threatening to shut down a ballet company’s Manhattan performances, charging that its choreographer is a communist. Then a cable breaks and a ballerina plunges to her death, never breaking fifth position, “a dedicated artist to the very end.’’

In “Death Before Bedtime’’ he casts a critical eye over the world of Washington, D.C.’s political elite, a milieu he knew well and one that doesn’t seem to have changed that much over the years. The plot involves a venal conservative senator, his promiscuous daughter, an ambitious governor, suspicious constituents, and a cross-section of Capitol high society. There’s even a singing dog, Hermione, a poodle who appears to reflect Vidal’s feelings about celebrity. Hermione gives a well-reviewed concert at Town Hall and goes on to enjoy a successful film career.

In “Death Likes It Hot’’ Sargeant finds himself among the rich at an Easthampton weekend organized by a social climbing hostess who has hired him to publicize a lavish party. He’s bored senseless until one of his fellow guests drowns under suspicious circumstances, then another is found with his throat slit. Vidal is especially sharp when he’s poking fun at the ruling classes. In all three novels, mystery takes a back seat to satire.

Diane White is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., and can be reached at duxwhite@aol.com.

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