Are mysteries "literature" as well as popular entertainments? You can get into a fine argument any day with critics and academics and other readers over that question. So it's worth pointing out the number of so-called "serious" authors who have written mysteries. People like Charles Dickens, say. Or Edgar Allan Poe.
Or Gore Vidal.
Gore Vidal? Yes. Early in his career, Vidal tossed off three "medium-boiled" detective stories, writing under the name "Edgar Box." Those three mysteries, starring a P. R. man named Peter Sargeant, have now been republished by Vintage Books under their Vintage Crime/Black Lizard imprint. The first of those books, "Death in the Fifth Position," which appeared in 1952, is the subject of this week's Classic Mysteries podcast review, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.
Vidal certainly makes no claim for these books as literature, and the introduction he has provided to this new edition makes that very clear: he wrote them because they put food on the table - and did so, apparently, for quite a few years, before the author could build his reputation as a serious writer. But taken for what they clearly are - funny, cleverly written potboilers - these books can be a lot of fun to read.
"Death in the Fifth Position" is centered around a visiting ballet troupe visiting New York City. Sargeant is hired to do public relations for the company and to try to head off a potential PR disaster over a choreographer accused of being a Communist. Almost immediately, one of the company's ballerinas is murdered, falling to her death on stage in what the ballet world calls a perfect fifth position. The plot takes off from there and becomes pretty complicated, involving several deaths before it all gets sorted out. Vidal claims to have learned a lot from Agatha Christie, so there are some nice surprising twists here. If you prefer an electronic edition, there is a version formatted for the Amazon Kindle.