Gore Vidal has admitted that he did not set out to write mystery novels to make a new contribution to the genre. He was a professional writer in need of an income. Just as he later turned to television and film writing for money, so detective novels represented an opportunity for him to support himself. Because he is an accomplished writer, however, Vidal’s three mystery novels as Edgar Box are not negligible achievements. They are distinguished by a strong sense of plot and a complicated array of interesting suspects. When he knows the milieu of his characters particularly well—as in the Long Island setting of Death Likes It Hot—he achieves a fascinating blend of social criticism and detection.
There are certain aspects of Vidal’s detective, Peter Cutler Sargeant II, that must be tolerated if his investigations are to be appreciated. Sargeant is a well-built male with a considerable appetite for young women. Although his romances figure significantly in all three novels, they are treated in a somewhat perfunctory fashion—as though Vidal feels obligated to give Sargeant a love interest but cannot summon much enthusiasm for the task. By modern standards, Sargeant would be considered something of a sexist—although his male chauvinism is not much different from the superior attitude he takes toward most human beings, who seem to him fatuous, manipulative, and sometimes downright silly. To a certain extent, he simply shares the characteristics of many fictional detectives, whose line of work encourages suspicion of motivations and professions of sincerity.
In none of the three novels is Sargeant hired as a detective. On the contrary, he is engaged by the head of a ballet company, a politician running for president, and an ambitious society matron to handle their public relations. It is only after a murder is committed that his curiosity is aroused. Usually, his employer enlists his aid in getting out of a jam occasioned by a murder and all the bad publicity such a crime entails. Even then, Sargeant reluctantly seeks out the murderer only after his own life is endangered. This would seem to be an effective novelistic stratagem because it enables Sargeant to remain objective (he has not been looking for work as a detective) but involved (he may be the next victim). The problem is that Vidal uses the same stratagem in each novel, so that as a series, his novels fail to sustain themselves; they seem too gimmicky. It is too much to suppose that a public relations man would become involved in so many murder cases.
Like many fictional detectives, Sargeant often discovers the identity of the murderer before he has evidence to present to the police. It is the chain of circumstances that he analyzes, the relationships he has had with the suspects, the stories they have told him, and some word or occurrence that suddenly provides the spark for his intuitive solution to a case. This reading of human nature, of clues that do not really exist except in the mind of the intellectually superior detective, distinguishes Sargeant from the plodding, unimaginative police detectives who are his adversaries.
Vidal is successful in creating empathy for Sargeant by having his detective freely admit his ignorance. Sargeant makes many mistakes. Often he takes leaps in the dark, asserting that he has information when he has none at all. A considerable amount of bluff goes into Sargeant’s interrogation of suspects. What finally makes him successful, however, is his willingness to wrestle with his own lack of evidence.
Death in the Fifth Position
A typical example of Sargeant’s self-questioning can be found in Death in the Fifth Position. A ballerina has fallen to her death during a performance. Someone has cut the cord that suspended her high above the stage. At first, her drug addict husband is suspected. Then he dies in his apartment—perhaps as a suicide but possibly as a victim of the real murderer. Sargeant has to recalculate a list of suspects. He sits worriedly at his employer’s desk for “several minutes.” Then “idly, with a pencil stub,” he writes the names of everyone in the company who could have committed the crime. He puts the name of his girlfriend, Jane, a dancer in the company who has received better roles since the death of the ballerina, at the bottom of the list and draws a box around it, as if to protect her. On the next page he writes “Why?” and “How?” Then he answers a series of questions about motive with what he knows about...
(The entire section is 1856 words.)