The versatile Gore Vidal wrote 25 novels, two volumes of memoirs, countless essays, plus numerous plays and screenplays, including for the films Ben Hur and Suddenly Last Summer. But he is probably best remembered for simply being Gore Vidal, originator of such fine aphorisms as ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little’ and ‘The four most beautiful words in our common language: “I told you so”’. He also suggested that ‘Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so’ – an idea whose time came and went in 2016. What Gore Vidal certainly will never be remembered for is a book he wrote in 1952 called Thieves Fall Out.
In the early 1950s, the high-living Vidal found himself short of cash. Still only in his twenties, he had already written several serious novels but they had failed to provide any sort of decent income. So he turned to pulp fiction, knocking out a short novel of two-fisted adventure in the space of a few weeks for a $3,000 paycheque. This was Thieves Fall Out, which was published under the pseudonym of Cameron Kay and was all but ignored by the book-buying public and quickly forgotten until over 60 years later it was rediscovered and republished in the spring of 2015 by an imprint specialising in reviving lost works of pulp crime fiction. There’s good reason this book was out of print for so long: it’s bad. It’s a B-movie take on Casablanca, a tale of a young American drifter who finds himself broke in foreign lands and in order to earn some money becomes entangled with a femme fatale who entices him into a scheme to smuggle a valuable antique necklace out of the country. There’s a piano-playing, brothel-running hunchback named La Mouche and the beautiful daughter of a high-ranking Nazi as the love interest. What it doesn’t have is a topless dancer wielding a wickedly curving dagger as depicted on the cover of the 2015 reprint at the top of this post but, still, you are never quite sure whether it is meant to be a parody or not. But you will understand what makes the book fascinating to me when I tell you that the story’s setting is Egypt and, more specifically for large parts, Shepheard’s hotel.
Vidal spent two or three weeks in Egypt in spring 1948. According to his biographer, Fred Kaplan, the writer stayed at ‘El Mint Hotel’, a modest place out near the Pyramids but spent his days hanging out at Shepheard’s, where he wrote in one of the public rooms, and it shows:
Shepheard’s was a long building, several stories high, with big shuttered windows and a porch on the side street, where, at numerous tables, foreigners and rich Egyptians sat at the end of the day, watching the street and drinking aperitifs; but at this time of day the porch was deserted.
With a show of confidence, he walked up the steps to the main door, glad to be rid at last of the beggars, who now fell into position against the terrace wall, waiting for American and European victims.
The lobby of the hotel was blissfully cool after the heat outside. Negro servants in hotel livery moved silently about the great room, carrying bags, doing errands for the guests. Though it was out of season, there were still quite a few guests here, he saw to his relief. Help would come from them, though he was not sure how.
He sauntered from the main lobby into a vast room with a high domed ceiling, like the interior of a mosque, much decorated, ornate, Turkish in style. It was cool and mysterious with dark alcoves in which people sat doing business: fat stolid Europeans and lean, red-faced British, exchanging papers, peering at small type, murmuring their deals in low voices.
At the end of the room, to the left, was the famous bar, a wood-panelled room with an oval-shaped bar at which stood a dozen men in white suits, drinking, their feet resting on the shining brass rail.
It’s in Shepheard’s bar that the American Pete Wells encounters the shifty Brit who introduces him to the world of antiquities smuggling.
One evening at L’Auberge des Pyramides nightclub Vidal saw King Farouk with a blonde European girl on his arm: ‘Like a mafia don, with dark glasses, he was surrounded by plainclothesmen, also in dark glasses.’ This finds its way into Thieves Fall Out (where Vidal cattily remarks that Farouk ‘looks more like a dentist than a king’), as does Luxor, which Vidal visited, and where he must have stayed at the Karnak hotel on the Corniche because he makes it the setting for a series of encounters in the book.
Vidal was always interested in politics and maybe the most interesting thing about Thieves Fall Out is that it is set against the backdrop of the 1952 Revolution. Like the recently released film The Nile Hilton Incident (which I saw again last week and which is even better on second viewing) the chaos of the revolution swarms around the final scenes of the story.
If you can overlook the clichés – Arabs are reliably ‘swarthy’ and women are prostitutes, double-crossing sirens or nightclub singers in need of rescue – then Thieves Fall Out is a breezy time-travelling trip to a more innocent Cairo, in which waking up to find you’ve been drugged and robbed by the girl you met last night, and deciding to smuggle antiquities to raise money for a ticket home is just all part of the visitor experience.