Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal, book review: Author's pulp thriller sees light of day

The America author produced a thriller under the pseudonym "Cameron Kay"

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All of us – except perhaps for residents of Kensington Palace Gardens – are obliged (at times) to watch the pennies. Take even the late Gore Vidal, for instance. As one of the most respected of American literary novelists and a deliciously waspish commentator on social mores, he was nevertheless once conscious of a cash flow problem. Not, perhaps, how he would pay the rent, but how – without some downsizing of his sybaritic lifestyle – he could make more money from his writings.

The patrician writer was convinced his eloquent espousal of homosexual issues in his novel The City and the Pillar in 1948 had alienated critics and lost him readers. His solution? Churn out some pulp fiction. Always a speedy writer, he used a Dictaphone to produce a thriller under the pseudonym "Cameron Kay". Vidal admirers have long wondered if he would have been able to do anything interesting with a genre that seemed alien to him. Now, with the book published under his own name some 60 years after it was written, we have a chance to find out.

First, it should be noted that this is not hard-boiled urban detective fiction after the fashion of Raymond Chandler (or even the latter's downmarket colleague Mickey Spillane); if anything, Thieves Fall Out is closer to the English thrillers of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, with a hapless westerner down on his luck in a hostile foreign city – in this case, Cairo. And there's more than a splash of the Epstein Brothers' screenplay for Casablanca in the DNA here.

In this heady mix of sex (heterosexual) and political double-dealing, cash-strapped ex-officer Pete Wells befriends a bluff Englishman called Hastings, who introduces him to the seductive Hélène, Comtesse de Rastignac. The countess offers him erotic enticements to smuggle out of Egypt a valuable artefact (the necklace of Queen Tiy). Matters are complicated by Pete falling for a young nightclub singer, the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi officer.

So just how good is this long-lost commercial outing for Vidal? It may seem obvious to modern readers that Vidal is sending up his steamy material, and the book reads much more like a parody than similar tales by Ambler. What's more, there are linguistic infelicities here that would horrify the fastidious Vidal if he knew it was being dusted off today. ("Her hair was drawn softly back from her face, revealing an oval face with black eyes and scarlet lips." Vidal would have had a later editor shot for allowing that repetition of the word "face".)

But let's not be too po-faced; this is a diverting read, full of larger-than-life characters and fevered incident. The best way to tackle it is to imagine you have no idea who Cameron Kay is and are merely enticed by the scantily clad, knife-wielding temptress on the cover.