Thieves Fall Out by Gore Vidal (writing as Cameron Kay) is a pulp novel, rediscovered after sixty years, about a broke American in post-WWII Cairo who gets involved in smuggling, intrigue, and revolution (available April 21, 2015).
This novel comes with comparisons to Casablanca right on the back—oh, it's understandable if you didn't notice that given the steamy front cover image by Glen Orbik. Well, I note that Egypt isn't Morocco, and this action's set post-WWII, but damned if they weren't right!
Dateline: Cairo, the dog days of summer in 1952, on the run-up to what we now know as the 23 July Revolution. If you're well-off or well-connected, there are pale, tiled rooms with gloved servants and cool beverages, places where international opportunists, trying not to sweatstain their gabardines, hide from the day's heat as they pantomime civilization. Outside the well-guarded hotels that cater to corrupt officials and smugglers, beggars swarm and impoverished natives foment revolution against a dissolute king.
After his rise-and-fall in oil wildcatting, then five years in the Army, where he boxed middleweight, Peter Wells finds himself in the capital city, thirty-one and stony broke. His most recent paid work was on a freighter that landed him at the docks of Cairo, resulting finally in a visit the U.S. Consulate:
“The last thing I remember was going into a dive a few blocks from here, about five o'clock yesterday afternoon. French place called Le Couteau Rouge. Next thing I knew, I woke up about an hour ago in a house with some woman I never saw before, Arab woman, asking me for money. Well, I couldn't remember a thing, but I was sure I paid in advance, knowing those places, so I got out fast. Then I found out too late I'd been rolled.”
Mr Case's Puritan face was set in a mask of bleak disgust….“Difficult,” said Mr. Case vaguely. “The Consulate doesn't like this sort of thing.”
“Neither do I.”
Fortunately, an eager, strong man with a clean passport is always of use, and Pete “was prepared to do almost anything to make a dollar, and in his life he'd done a lot of unusual things to survive.” He locates Shepheard's Hotel, rumored to have the most action, and finds it full of business being done in shaded alcoves. Quickly making the acquaintance of a sun-burned Englishman named Hastings, it won't be long until Peter's been handed off to the seductive Comtesse de Rastignac, and found himself a dangerous and lucrative job, twice as dangerous because no one will tell him precisely what it is. But I must tell you, because it only makes the exoticism more alluring: he's tasked with smuggling a priceless relic. It's got a ruby as big as a pigeon's egg and a curse.
The women in this novel are lovely schemers who lie for a variety of reasons. The men are alternately sly, sneaky, and brutal. There's also a powerful inspector who seems to play all sides. Mohammed Ali's self-serving agenda as he mouths declarations of public-spiritedness is no less obvious than that of Casablanca's Captain Renault, if of a more intense, direct style. Mohammed Ali is capable of disposing of any usual suspect all by himself and plays the unpredictable spoiler as the policeman who “didn't stay bought.”
At the time Vidal wrote this, he'd already written The City and the Pillar, a novel whose frank depiction of male romance had created literary scandal under his own name. So, he was concurrently writing (and successfully selling) the Edgar Box mystery series about a publicist who'd become a private investigator. Cameron Kay must've been another pseudonym intended to keep the pot boiling, as they say, and it's satisfying as pulp intrigue, with the necessary secrets, duplicity, and betrayals.
Whether accurate or not, Vidal's Egypt matches the one of my mind. Its denizens argue over the best drug and liquor pairings for the height of the summer, when the Nile is at its lowest and the tourists are outnumbered by scavengers, grotesque rascals whom my imagination casts to look like Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet.
However, my favorite moments in this novel aren't plot-driven. They're not even the concisely-sketched details of a Cairo and Luxor that I gleefully fill in with the melodramatic, dated visual vocabulary I acquired from Hollywood's production designers and studio back-lots. No, I most responded to Vidal's skill as a writer in fleeting moments of closeness. Vidal reports squalor dispassionately, but when he places characters against each other, even just briefly, the exchanges crackle with potential. Peter Wells is bold by nature, physically confident in an atmosphere that's tangibly sensual:
He was propositioned a hundred times. Boys tried to sell him their sisters, their aunts, themselves; men offered to arrange exotic exhibitions for him, to sell him dope, stolen jewels, Persian rugs. He got very tired of them, but they were a part of this strange world and he was determined to make the best of it.
At eight, exactly, the Countess appeared in the lobby, wearing an evening gown of black lace with a short full skirt in the latest Paris fashion. At her throat diamonds flamed and around her head she wore a filmy veil of black, glittering with jet. Men turned to look at her admiringly as she crossed the lobby. The British ladies in their shapeless evening gowns glared and turned their backs, the highest tribute….
“Come, Peter, don't be one of those…how do you say—moral? One of those moral American men.”
“I'll try not to be,” he said, smiling, aware that their thighs were touching, that his arm was pushed tight against hers, that neither had moved apart although the car seat was wide.
In up-close encouters and across genders, violence and desire will both step forward, trying to cut in on each other's dance. Even more than the drama of mercenaries and mobs, people inches from each other, deciding, battling with themselves, that's what provided me the moments of greatest suspense.
Through the convolutions of the story, Peter will find a deeper reason than mere money to want to succeed in his assignment. Ah, but it's the heat of local politics—repeatedly dismissed as being small-minded and provincial—which threatens to incinerate even the honest work of double-crossing when Thieves Fall Out.
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Clare Toohey is a literary omnivore who wants a taste from your page. Aside from editing The M.O. and site wrangling here, she's a freelance editor who writes short and surreal crime stories, blogs at Women of Mystery, and tweets @clare2e.