Revisiting Gore Vidal’s Crime Fiction

How a trio of subversive mystery novels helped reinvent the famed author

Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal in 2009
David Shankbone/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / July 28, 2019 11:44 am

The late Gore Vidal is best-known for his writings on politics and his historical fiction — particularly the Narratives of Empire books, which explored American history via the likes of Aaron Burr and Abraham Lincoln. He had high-profile feuds with the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Norman Mailer, and maintained a larger-than-life profile in American culture until his death in 2012. 

But Vidal’s work as a novelist wasn’t all historically rich and resonant: early in his career as a writer, he also penned a number of works of crime fiction. Now, at CrimeReads, David Masciotra has explored that corner of Vidal’s bibliography — and discovered plenty that still resonates decades after these books were first published.

As Masciotra explains, the publication of Vidal’s 1948 novel The City and the Pillar shocked some in the literary community. “Vidal’s groundbreaking and brave novel sympathetically depicting the lives of two men in love, threatened to end his literary career,” he writes. 

Vidal moved west and began working as a screenwriter: his next novel published under his own name was Julian, which hit shelves in 1964. This was the book that cemented Vidal’s reputation as an author; a Slate appreciation of his fiction called Julian “his magnum opus.”

In the years following the release of The City and the Pillar, publisher Victor Weybright reached out to Vidal about writing a series of mysteries. Weybridge was best known for publishing the hard-boiled noir novels of Mickey Spillane, but sought something different from Vidal. “He was not looking for the replication of Spillane, but an alternative—a mystery series of elegance, and a hero who more resembled Vidal than Mike Hammer,” Masciotra writes.

The novels that Vidal wrote under the pseudonym Edgar Box featured an unlikely investigator, Peter Sargent, whose proximity to the rich and powerful allowed Vidal to ruminate on politics even as he told gripping stories of crime and punishment.

Sargent is a former theater critic who has become a publicist, moving exclusively among the elite in ornate rooms of wealth and privilege—the theater companies of America’s most renowned dancers, the mansions of US Senators, and the Hampton homes of New York socialites.

The novels he wrote as Edgar Box also provided Vidal with some much-needed financial stability. The three Edgar Box novels, beginning with Death in the Fifth Position, helped Vidal reinvent himself as a writer — and told some compelling stories along the way. Masciotra’s exploration of the Edgar Box novels makes a stirring case for their importance — both in terms of Vidal’s bibliography and within the larger scope of American crime fiction.

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