EDGAR BOX. Death Likes It Hot (1954).

19 Jul

This book, replete with knowing references to the American cultural scene of the early 1950s (McCarthyism, abstract expressionism, Dr. Kinsey, Marlon Brando), has a jaunty, be-bop vibe to it. Yet its title has nothing to do with jazz—the usual context in which people of that era might say, “Some like it hot.” Nor, heaven forbid, does it have anything to do with porridge, as in the nursery rhyme “Pease Porridge Hot” (the true origin of that phrase). Instead, the title refers in a veiled but clear enough way to sex. DeathLikesOldPB.jpgThe sexual content of the book lurks under a veil of clever writing, too, although presumably it was clear enough and “hot” enough to meet the needs of readers who sought a break from the straight-laced literary culture of the Eisenhower years.

Edgar Box is actually Gore Vidal, who early in his career hammered out three short detective novels under that name, his goal being to serve a then-expanding market for semi-trashy “adult” fare. Mickey Spillane and various paperback-original writers had shown that a publishing bonanza was ready for the tapping by those who could add a little “heat” to an established popular genre, and Vidal here tries to blend the Spillane approach with an earlier, more urbane style of mystery writing (typified by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, for example). His choice of a pseudonym is telling. It combines a nod toward Poe, father of the traditional detective story, with a wink at something sexual, or at any rate anatomical.

The title also refers obliquely to the stultifying heat of Manhattan in August, which compels Peter Cutler Sargeant III to accept a job offer from a certain Mrs. Veering. Sargeant owns a one-man PR agency, and Mrs. Veering wants his help in publicizing her bid to rise a few levels in the Social Register. Along with the job comes an invitation to a weekend party at her place in the Hamptons, and Sargeant jumps at the chance to escape the big hot city. Mrs. Veering’s other guests include well-to-do friends of hers from Boston, a couple of self-involved artsy types, and her niece, Mildred Brexton. On the first morning of the party, Mildred drowns while swimming in Long Island Sound. An autopsy shows that she had several sleeping pills in her system—not a good idea for anyone who plans to battle ocean currents—and police suspect that an unseen hand caused her to ingest them. The following night, another guest gets stabbed to death out on Mrs. Veering’s beautiful beach. That’s when Sargeant transforms himself from a flack into a sleuth, partly to keep the local cops from bungling the case and partly to save his own skin from a wanton killer. DeathLikesHC.jpg Still, he finds time to mingle his skin with that of a nubile acquaintance who is staying nearby, and he coyly (but clearly enough) recounts more than one roll in the dunes that they enjoy together

Vidal, amid his rush to “sell out” by writing salable trash, can’t help but write engagingly. But he also can’t weave a mystery tale with any degree of competence. The sprightly, sure-handed quality of his prose contrasts with the awkward nature of his plotting. Key clues come in a jumble near the end of the novel, and Sargeant arranges them in the right order by what appears to be sudden, random luck. It is heat, rather than light, that brings the whole thing to a climax.

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Posted by on July 19, 2010 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel


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