Gore Vidal's 'Thieves Fall Out,' Where Pulp Fiction and Hard Reality Met

The New York Times, April 12, 2015

"Then, still without a word, he took her in his arms, and it was as if a sudden storm passed over them and into them, carrying them to the bed and gathering momentum till finally it exploded in a flash of lightning, leaving them shaken and content. And Pete knew that it had never been like this before."

Chances are good that if you tried to come up with plausible authors for this passage, Gore Vidal's name would not be on your list. Chances are good that he would have preferred it that way. But in 1953, for the rough sum of $3,000, he churned out a pulp paperback called "Thieves Fall Out," which contains, in addition to the above, a gold-toothed criminal mastermind, a piano-playing hunchback named La Mouche and a double-dealing French siren described as "lovely but bad."

Vidal was under no illusions about what he'd produced. To hide his tracks, he used the neutered nom de plume Cameron Kay (derived from family names, according to Fred Kaplan's 1999 biography of Vidal) and, over the course of his lifetime, he declined ever to reprint the novel under his own name.

But death has a way of obviating writers' wishes, and now that Vidal is safely in his grave, this buried work can rise and walk once more. Walking alongside it: the vexed question of what to do with authors' illegitimate children—those books tossed off for quick and easy money, whose paternal claims were only grudgingly, if ever, acknowledged. Do we nudge the bastard offspring out of family photos? Or do we invite them over for the holidays?

Even Vidal was of two minds, happy to reclaim his suave 1950s Edgar Box mysteries but content to let this other period artifact wither on the vine. Was he wrong?

Well, let's allow that "Thieves Fall Out" is an efficient genre exercise, tightly paced and easily digested. Set in postwar Egypt, it introduces us, with quick and sure brush strokes, to an American vagabond named Pete Wells, who arrives in Cairo fresh off a freighter, penniless and "prepared to do almost anything to make a dollar."

Which makes him easy pickings for a gang of jewel thieves who want him to smuggle out the insanely valuable necklace of Queen Tiy. To no reader's surprise, the necklace has a curse attached to it (one of several plot points that fail to reach maturity), and nobody is what he or she seems. If Pete is going to save himself and the beautiful freedom-fighting German singer he loves, he will have to stave off scorpions, mobs, anonymous Arab ruffians and bad hotels.

Vidal spent some time in Cairo in 1948, and it shows: "Boats with red sails tacked across the snake-gray water. A flight of birds crossed the blazing sun. For a moment he was at peace, all thought of trouble gone in the warm green silence of the garden." Now and again glimmers of the author's native tartness peep through. (King Farouk of Egypt looks "more like a dentist than a king.")

The dismay of "Thieves Fall Out" is not that it's terrible but that it's so thoroughly conventional, stitched together from the intestines of a million B-movies. Arabs are reliably "swarthy," with "black gleaming eyes" and "low guttural voices." Tension is "like an electric current." At some point, pretty much every character in the book holds a revolver on someone else and—get ready—releases the safety catch.

So why bother reading it? Because in its unwitting way, this mercenary enterprise makes for a better self-portrait than Vidal's more artful work.

After a run of precocious literary success, Vidal had brought gay sexuality to the fore with "The City and the Pillar" (1948) and for his troubles earned both notoriety and literary oblivion. By 1953, he was struggling, according to his biographer Mr. Kaplan, with the basic question of "how to make an adequate living in a depressed book market." The time had come to give the public what it wanted.

So the subtextual question posed by "Thieves Fall Out" is: How does a provocateur inch back toward the mainstream? Consider Pete Wells, an alpha male whom Mickey Spillane might have warmed to, quick with his fists and given to hard-boiled utterances like "She's a pretty exciting number, I'll say that." His virility is more clearly defined for being threatened by a lustful police inspector named (no joke) Mohammed Ali, who does indeed float like a butterfly from Cairo to Luxor but is regularly stung by the force of Pete's fists. Every time Mohammed succumbs to American might, you can hear Vidal murmuring, "This is what they want."

More, though, than simply truckling to mass taste, Vidal is clearly using the pulp format to figure out what he's good at (sardonic worldliness) and what he's not (romance). And through it all, he keeps the words flowing. Like his bete noire William Buckley, Vidal was an aristocrat with a proletarian work ethic, and before he was done with the 1950s, he had turned himself, by dint of sweat and will and nerve, into a famous playwright, scenarist and television writer. He took assignments as they came, he met his deadlines, and he kept the flame of fiction alive.

Seen in this light, "Thieves Fall Out" is not an aberration but one more link in the chain: A writer making the choice to write. Even if he knew it wasn't for the ages.