Overlooked Books: The Novels of "Edgar Box"

Gore Vidal has a pretty interesting bibliography: the novels Myra Breckinridge, Lincoln, Hollywood, and the groundbreaking The City and the Pillar, for example, not to mention various essays, screenplays, and whatnots.

You probably know all that already, but you might not know this: in the 1950s Vidal wrote three crime novels under the pseudonym Edgar Box: Death in the Fifth Position (1952), Death Before Bedtime (’53), and Death Likes it Hot (’55). 

The three novels — they’re not really a trilogy — were reissued in 2011 by Vintage Crime, published for the first time under Vidal’s name. (The last time they appeared, in a 1978 omnibus edition, Vidal’s authorship was obliquely acknowledged, but they appeared under the Box name.)

The books are light comedies, written in a breezy style that feels like their author dashed them off in a spare few hours (which isn’t all that far from the truth, apparently). Their hero is Peter Sargeant, a public relations guy who stumbles onto crimes about as often as he stumbles into women’s beds…which is to say: a lot.

The plot of Death Before Bedtime, the middle book, revolves around the murder of a senator. The murder takes place while the man’s house is filled with guests, and, in a sort of risque, wise-ass version of an Agatha Christie whodunnit, Peter weeds through the suspects until the killer is unmasked.

There’s plenty of sexual innuendo, some fairly explicit (for the time) dialogue and description, and a vaguely noir-ish — or perhaps spoofy noir-ish — feel to the book. Here’s a sample:

In the year that I had known her she was either just coming out from under a hangover or else going into one, with a moment or two, I suppose, of utter delight when she was in between, when she was high (p.11).

Here’s another:

Then I had my arms around her and we edged toward the bed. She wore nothing under the blue silk negligee and her body was voluptuous and had a young feel to it, smooth and taut with wide firm hips and her nipples pressed hard against my chest, burning through the pajama top (p.93).

And here’s a look at the original cover, just for fun:

Vidal has never really been tied to one particular literary style, and he’s no stranger to material with, um, sexual overtones, but the Edgar Box novels are a bit more impish than we’re used to from him. Definitely worth checking out.



About the Author:

David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to reviewing for Booklist, he writes a monthly column about paperback fiction and nonfiction for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has contributed to The Booklist Reader since 2010.

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