In 1953, when he was 28 years old and already an established author, Gore Vidal wrote a pulp crime novel — Thieves Fall Out — under the name “Cameron Kay”. The novel was lost, never reprinted, and Vidal went on to become one of America’s greatest and most controversial authors, winning a National Book Award in 1993. Now, more than 60 years later, the book has been published under the author’s real name for the first time by Hard Case Crime.
Thieves Fall Out follows Pete Wells, a down-on-his-luck American, in a Cairo that is on the cusp of revolution. Wells is hired to smuggle an ancient relic out of the city, where he soon finds himself the target of killers and femme fatales. The following excerpt is from the opening of the novel, where the reader meets Mr. Wells for the first time.
His dreams grew confused and ominous. Suddenly his muscles contracted in fear and he awoke, sweat cold on his body.
It took him several moments to bring the room into focus. His head throbbed and an ache behind his eyes made the bright sunlight unbearable.
The room was small. Strips of moldering yellow plaster hung from the lathes. The single window was tall, with broken shutters dangling crazily shut, slicing the light in zebra patterns on the warped floor.
The bed was the only piece of furniture in the room: a verminous mattress over springs. When he looked at it, he got to his feet in disgust, staggering a little. From far away he could hear a high toneless chanting. It was the sound that had awakened him, that he had heard in his dreams: the muezzin calling the Mohammedans to prayer, a strange, unearthly noise.
As he picked up his trousers, which lay crumpled on the floor beside the bed, someone began to pound on the door. Through wide cracks in the door’s panels he saw the outline of a woman.
“Come in,” he said, pulling on his trousers. Then, seeing that the door was bolted, he opened it for her.
She entered the room scowling, a dark-skinned woman wearing a loose robe. She was good-looking, in a heavy way, with large black eyes as bright and unblinking as a rat’s.
“American?” Her voice was deep and guttural.
He nodded, fastening his belt and reaching for his shirt. He could remember nothing, yet he was sure he had never seen her before. Vaguely he recalled having paid for a room.
“Money!” The word exploded in the room and she put out one hand in the universal gesture.
“Now, look here….” He shoved his feet into his shoes awkwardly and stood up, working the heels into place.
A flood of abuse made him dizzy. Her hands opened and shut convulsively as she shouted at him, her black eyes large and brilliant. He edged toward the door. She put herself between him and the door, her hands clutching now at his clothes. He shoved her away. This was a mistake, for she immediately yelled for help. Help came in the form of five women of different age, weight, and beauty, but all sharing the same profession and dressed in similar loose robes, all shouting as they crowded about him on the rickety stairs outside the room.
Alarmed, he tried to make his way through this tiger- smelling group, but firm arms prevented him; hands grabbed at him fiercely. With a sudden lunge he broke free of them, and half running, half falling, got down the stairs to the street.
In an arcade two blocks away he paused, suddenly exhausted, sweating in the heat and slightly nauseated.
The bright Cairo noon dazzled his eyes. Shimmering waves of heat made the modern buildings across the wide street quiver as though they were fashioned of gray rubber. He turned his back on the street and looked down the arcade, where, in the shade, men wearing fezzes and sheetlike robes of plain white or striped cotton sat in doorways selling food and shoes and beads and sandals and Coca-Cola. Veiled women passed them without a look to right or left; idle men lounged against the blunt pillars of the arcade, watching the street, where modern cars from all the countries of the world drove gleaming past. He took a deep breath, inhaling all the strange odors of Cairo: musk and food, urine, drugs, filth, and sandalwood. This sudden wealth of new sensation pleased him and he felt better, though still shaky. He reached in the breast pocket of his sport shirt for cigarettes. They were gone. He had bought a pack only the evening before. It must have been a rough night, he thought, moving toward a booth where a grizzled, bearded villain was selling cigarettes.
It was when he came to pay for the cigarettes that he discovered he had been robbed. All his money and his American Express checks were gone. The double-buttoned back pocket where he kept them had been torn open.
Panic seized him as he gave the package of cigarettes back to the old man, who began to whine threateningly, implying that the value of his wares had been decreased by handling. In a daze he moved off down the arcade and retraced his steps to the pale blue building where he hadspent the night. When he pounded on the door and shouted, there was no answer from inside. The windows were shuttered against the day and the inmates were invisible. Only a child with red-rimmed, diseased eyes watched him with interest, as he shook the door’s knob desperately.
He was given an audience with someone of almost no importance at the American Consulate.
The someone of no importance was young, disinterested, and disapproving. He sat behind a standard American desk in a small bare office with one window so high that the city could not be seen from it. But the noises could not be shut out, high, raucous, breathy Arab noises and, periodically, the unearthly sound of the faithful being called to prayer.
He started right in to tell the young official his story, but he was interrupted.
“I think we had better start from the beginning,” said Mr. Case, for so the discreet sign on his desk declared him, gold letters on black. “May I see your passport?”
The document was handed over. “Your name is Peter Wells?”
“You were born…”
“And you are…?”
“Thirty-one years and four months old in my stocking feet.” Pete Wells was beginning to dislike the young Mr. Case.
“What are you doing in Egypt?”
“Looking around for what?” The tone was cold and insulting.
Pete controlled himself. “I came here on a ship—worked my way as far as Alexandria on the freighter Roger Hale. I left the ship in Alexandria and came down to Cairo yesterday.”
“Why did you come to Cairo?”
“To look at the Sphinx.”
Mr. Case ignored the irony. “No tourists come to Cairo in the summer,” he said precisely. “July is one of the hottest months and there is cholera in many sections of the city.”
“I didn’t come for the cholera.”
“What, Mr. Wells, is your occupation?”
“My last job was as deck hand on the Roger Hale. Before that I was in the Army five years. Before that—”
“Then we shall list you as a merchant seaman.”
“Except for the fact that I lived in Texas and wildcatted,up to the war.”
“Prospected for oil.”
“There is no oil in Egypt.”
“Now look here, Mr. Case, I’m an American citizen, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves. I came over here to look around. I’ve been robbed and I’m appealing to the government to do something about it.”
“It’s not the government’s…” but Mr. Case paused, deciding not to go into that routine just yet. He made tiny marks on a piece of paper; then he asked, “How much were you robbed of, and where, and how?”
“Three hundred and fifty dollars in American Express checks, about ten dollars in piasters, and my Social Security card.”
“How did you manage to save your passport?”
Pete shrugged. “It was in another pocket, in my shirt. I don’t know where I was robbed, but I have a pretty good idea it was the house where I woke up. You see, I think I was doped.”
“The last thing I remember was going into a dive a few blocks from here, about five o’clock yesterday afternoon. French place called Le Couteau Rouge. Next thing I knew, I woke up about an hour ago in a house with some woman I never saw before, Arab woman, asking me for money. Well, I couldn’t remember a thing, but I was sure I paid in advance, knowing those places, so I got out fast. Then I found out too late I’d been rolled.”
Mr. Case’s Puritan face was set in a mask of bleak disgust. “Then you don’t recall anything between Le Couteau Rouge and waking up this morning?”
“That’s about it.”
“What do you propose we do about this?”
“I was just going to ask you the same thing.” They looked at each other hostilely across the desk.
“I will report all this to the Consul General and we’ll see what we can do about getting the Express checks back. In the meantime…”
“I have no money.”
“I assume you have a bank account somewhere. The Consulate could probably help you get a check cashed.”
“The money I lost was all I have, anywhere,” said Pete. “Your family…”
“No such thing.”
“Perhaps we could get you on an American ship, a deckhand job. I assume you belong to the union.”
“I just got here,” said Pete reasonably. “Maybe you could get me a job.”
“Difficult,” said Mr. Case vaguely. “The Consulate doesn’t like this sort of thing.”
“Neither do I.”
“Where are you staying?”
“Hotel Stanley, Eugenie Street. I paid a week in advance yesterday, so I’ve got a place to stay for a few days, with meals.”
“Then consider yourself lucky. I’ll present your case to the Consul and we will let you know in a day or two if any- thing can be done.” He pushed back from his desk and looked at his watch impatiently; the interview was over.
“What am I going to do for money?” asked Pete, embarrassed by having to beg.
The official looked at him blankly. “I’m sure I don’t know,” he said.
“Well, thanks.” Pete got to his feet. “You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?”
“I don’t smoke,” said Mr. Case; then he added, “Sorry,” which made it worse, but Pete Wells was already gone.
Adapted from Thieves Fall Out, by Gore Vidal, Copyright © 2015 by Gore Vidal. With the permission of the publisher, Hard Case Crime.