Gore Vidal has form as a crime writer. In the early 1950s, when his sympathetic literary treatment of homosexuality had brought him into critical disfavour, he turned to writing sprightly detective fiction under the name of Edgar Box. It’s much less well-known that he also took a dip in the far murkier waters of the pulp thriller.
Thieves Fall Out, originally published in 1953 and then deservedly forgotten, centres on Pete Wells, ex-wildcatter and former war hero, who turns up in King Farouk’s Egypt for no very good reason. Mugged in a Cairo brothel, he’s forced to look for work. Naturally he goes to Shepheard’s hotel (‘where the biggest operators lived’). Sure enough, he’s instantly recruited by a sinister Englishman named Hastings, perhaps Hercule Poirot’s friend gone to the bad. Hastings has a partner, the sort of sexy French pseudo-countess who always turns out to be bad news.
Pete isn’t fooled for a moment. Hastings ‘represented the last word in the Neanderthal mind’. The countess brings out Pete’s streak of sadism: ‘He had an impulse to strike that smiling, perfect face. But he controlled himself; there would be time for that later.’
After a little hashish, Pete takes the train to Luxor, surviving a poisonous scorpion on the way. At Luxor he goes sightseeing and falls in love with a naughty but nice German beauty, possibly Farouk’s mistress. In the course of a few hours the lovers leap into bed together and promptly decide to get married.
There are also numerous and usually violent encounters with sinister characters, including a gay policeman. (Pete is unfazed. ‘He had heard before that Arab men tended to like men more than women.’) During a sort of side-trip from the main narrative, Pete wanders into the desert where he encounters a gang of brigands, who do their best to castrate him. (Apparently it’s a quaint tribal custom in that part of the world.)
Hastings’s mission turns out to involve a fabulously valuable ancient necklace (with a curse on it) that he and the countess want Pete to smuggle out of the country. The necklace is no more than an excuse for a breathless and totally implausible narrative, whose main purpose is to allow Pete to strike macho poses and perform virile feats in a picturesque part of the world.
Taken in the right spirit, the novel is weirdly and unintentionally enjoyable —a sort of Casablanca with its trousers down, replete with racist asides (‘That’s sure white of you’). Some books are so bad they are good: this is one of them.
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