Invisible Ink: No 152 - Edgar Box

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The Independent Culture

Unusually for this column, we'll not begin with a profile of the author, for reasons that will become apparent. Rather, let's start with the books themselves – three crime novels set in the early 1950s starring war veteran (at 28) Peter Cutler Sargent II, now a womanising PR guru. In the first, Death in the Fifth Position, he's hired to work for a dance company when their prima ballerina does a dive from the rafters on opening night. Someone cut her cable, and soon the sleuth finds himself in a nest of thespian vipers trading razor-sharp quips as the bodies pile up.

After this, Sargent is summoned to Washington in Death Before Bedtime to help with a senator's presidential run, but somebody blows the politician up. Finally, there's Death Likes it Hot, the best of the bunch, in which the niece of a hostess throwing a lavish Hamptons party drowns in full view of her husband and the assembled guests. Naturally, the partygoers are a poisonous and waspish group, and there's an undercurrent of unsettling sexuality.

Who actually committed the murders in these cases seems irrelevant, for the fun is in the finding out. But reading them again, you notice that Box tips his hand a little too much and can't help revealing that there's someone not quite "sufficiently stupid to be a popular author" behind the books. In his first outing, Sargent says: "It was like those last chapters in Proust when everybody around starts turning into boy-lovers until there isn't a womaniser left on deck." Proust, really?

It was, of course, the worst-kept secret in publishing that Edgar Box was Gore Vidal. Early in his career the great man of letters had undone himself, damaging the success of his first two literary novels by writing The City and the Pillar, now regarded as a pioneering gay work, but blacklisted at the time (1948) by the horrified New York Times book critic.

With his career on the skids, and Joseph McCarthy conducting White House witch-hunts for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Vidal's publisher suggested that he adopt a pseudonym. The "Edgar" came from Edgar Wallace, the "Box" either from scriptwriter friends bearing the name, or Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Oblong Box" (Vidal typically revised the story in his lifetime). Now, armed with knowledge of the author's identity, it's possible to go back to the three thrillers and see many Vidal touches, from political barbs to sexual subtexts.