Vidal, writing under the name Cameron Kay (and doing so in the same period when he was turning out detective tales under the name Edgar Box), delivers an expertly sewn patchwork of mid-century pop-thriller tropes. Indeed, the narrative clichés on display here were already well worn by the time Vidal tried them on for size—and, one gathers, for profit. Apparent influences include every story (The Prisoner of Zenda, for example) in which a young hero gets caught up in the royal machinations of an exotic foreign country; every story (The Mummy, for example) in which the invasion of an Egyptian tomb unleashes a deadly curse; and every story (Hitchcock’s Notorious, for example) in which a woman of dubious loyalty becomes the focus of both romance and espionage. Above all, this tale of schemes and counterschemes, of love and crime in a politically fraught North African locale, owes an enormous debt to the movie Casablanca. The spirit of Rick Blaine hovers over every pivotal scene, as when one character utters this credo: “You might say that I am an adventurer corrupted by idealism.”
Despite such flashes of wit, the characters are as stock as they come. The doughty young hero is Peter Wells, an ex-soldier with a bit of experience as a wildcatting oilman. He has no distinguishing personality traits, and, when the novel begins, he has turned up in Cairo for no particular reason. In need of quick money, he ventures to Shepheard’s Hotel and chats up a central-casting British colonial type named Hastings, who in turn introduces him to the (faux) Countess Hélène de Rastignac, a woman of beguilingly indeterminate origin. During the recent war, she was a companion to a high-ranking Nazi leader. Now she and Hastings are cohorts in a sublegal business that seems to involve smuggling. Without knowing the exact nature of their enterprise, Pete agrees to take on an assignment: Accompanied by a dragoman named Osman, he will travel to Luxor to meet a certain Mr. Said, a dealer in antiquities. Said, as Pete will discover, exudes the customary amount of menace and mystery for a character of his ilk. In Cairo, Pete encounters another European expatriate—a German nightclub singer named Anna Mueller, who has a Nazi connection in her past and a connection to King Farouk of Egypt in the present. Pete falls hard for Anna, and his desire to settle down with her back in the States bolsters his eagerness to make it home alive. Before he can do so, he will need to tangle with other rough characters, including a wily, corrupt policeman named Muhammad Ali and a wily, corrupt bar owner named La Mouche.
The highlight of the book is Vidal’s prose, which drives a routine and predictable plot forward with welcome speed and offhand charm. Scenes of danger and violence, which most authors handle in a rote or clumsy way, are especially well done. These qualities turn an otherwise very dated yarn into a sporting romp and a quick, fun read. The trick to enjoying it is not to take it any more seriously than Vidal did.