This Cameron Kay fella might just amount to something one day.
Cameron Kay was a pseudonym used by literary leading light Gore Vidal when he was short of cash and needed to publish and get paid fast. He'd used other pseudonyms for this purpose, including Edgar Box and Katherine Everard. It took him about three weeks to produce 1953's Thieves Fall Out, and he made three grand on the deal. It's one of those books where a money-seeking rando goes to a foreign country and immediately inserts himself into the biggest caper going for hundreds of miles around—and does it, improbably, with great ease, while seeming to think, irrationally, that it's a good idea. This character, named Peter Wells, ultimately turns sour on the venture and must figure out a way to flee Egypt with his true love by his side.
Though Vidal is not at the heights he'd reach in his best writing, you already know that going in. In the final analysis he gets the job done, like a good carpenter working on a quick side project. We glanced at a few reviews after finishing the story and they seem to miss the point that Vidal does exactly what adventure fiction requires. Saying the book's plot is stock is like saying dance music is repetitive. It has to be that way to make you dance. Because of the identity of the author, it feels as if reviewers try to flaunt their intellectual bona fides by trashing the result. We're not going to do that. The book is satisfactory.
What Vidal does especially well is local color—though refracted through a wealthy Western prism that few Egyptians would appreciate. Yet it's clear he tries to be egalitarian, if imperfectly, and he crafts a tale with unique characters. There's a piano playing hunchback who hides behind a wall and looks at his nightclub through a peephole, a beautiful French countess who was once the mistress of Egypt's top Nazi, and a fresh young beauty who's the unrequited love of King Farouk of Egypt—who has her followed everywhere by his secret police. Those ideas are unusual, for sure, but they're not as farfetched as some reviewers would like you to think.
We make that statement confidently because we've lived in the wilder world. In Guatemala we met an ex-judge from a proximate country who had fled because of being targeted for death by the new ruling party, but who was a drunk who craved public enjoyment and had shaved his head and grown a beard in order to hang in dive bars unrecognized. Was his story true? Maybe. He had a judicial identification card he eventually showed us that looked real enough. Real enough, in fact, that we gave him a wide berth from then on, thinking that if he was assassinated we didn't want to be in the line of fire. It may not sound real, but there you go. It happened.
Therefore we don't agree with reviewers who think Vidal's characters are intentionally absurd, and that he was pushing the envelope of how bizarre he could make his cast. Such people exist. Vidal would have found them. They make Thieves Fall Out a fascinating read. The book isn't top of the genre, nor bottom, but it's unique, and has a fun climax tied into the burgeoning Egyptian revolution and the real-life fire that destroyed one of the most famous hotels in the world. Here's what Thieves Fall Out is in summation: readable, distracting, and just leftfield enough to let you know the author is someone with a different take on the world, who'd later distill his ideas into fiction that would make him a literary sensation.
Can't stop the spread, can't hope to contain it.
The colorful cover of this book attracted us, but the unusual title struck us too. Alien Virus? How could we resist that? The teaser tells us Alan Caillou's novel is a thriller set in exotic Cairo, so we were pretty sure the title was figurative and there'd be no viruses or aliens. We also learned from the rear cover that this is an espionage tale. When we cracked it open it became clear that, indeed, there is no literal virus. So then to what does the title refer? The book is set in Cairo before Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1956, but sometime after the 1952 uprising that many historians consider a marker for the end of British rule there. Here's the passage that explains the title:
This was the way they would march, down from the big square to the wide streets and the midans, chanting their slogans, carrying their leaders on their shoulders, holding aloft their placards, and the [instigators] would watch and know just when to set the fires, and there would be shots in the dark alleyways, and a man would be kicked to death and the crowds would gather to watch the fun and then take part in the burning and the looting and the destruction and the killing, and bombs would be be thrown and men would be bleeding in the streets after they had passed. There was an alien virus at work.
Yep, Alien Virus is another glorification of empire, which posits that Brits deserved to steal and rule others' lands, with the violence used to do so neatly excised from the annals of western history, replaced by a myth describing colonials as pragmatic and occasionally firm rulers, but generally benevolent, and who of course transformed distant cultures in beneficial ways, and even left behind cricket and polo, invaluable gifts. But history—when those who've been subjugated and occupied are given a chance to speak—is not so clean or pretty as western books would have you believe, and plunderers cannot be heroes or saints.
Despite the point-of-view being colonial, Alien Virus is an entertaining tale. It was originally published in 1957, with this Panther Books edition coming in 1961, and was written by a man who knew Egypt well, understood the workings of both the western diplomatic service and the Cairo underground, and spoke the local languages. So confident is Caillou in his storytelling that he doesn't even bother to translate the numerous snippets of French and Arabic speech, preferring to impart meaning by mood, a high-minded literary choice unusual for the period as far as we know, and which even today is attempted only by the most self assured authors writing for the most understanding publishers.
There are several major characters in Alien Virus, but in the center of the action is Julius Tort, who catches wind of a serious destabilization plot, but at first can't figure out the where, when, and who of it all. Could it be Russians? Could it be a local religious faction? He may not know, but the reader certainly does, as Caillou gives glimpses into terrorist cells. He doesn't use that terminology, though, and the cells aren't very formal. They're just ragtag cabals, but armed and determined to see Brits out of their country. We won't reveal more. Instead we'll end with a fun dialogue exchange between the protagonists. It happens after a stabbing. The victim, Bolec, in addition to fresh knife wounds, has been suffering from hemorrhoids:
“A good job you have an appetite, my friend. Those spare tyres have saved your life. We'll have to put you in the hospital for a few hours.”
Perugino said maliciously: “Don't forget to have the doctor cut out your piles, Bolec. He might cut out your coglione at the same time.”
“All right, you wait, you get this thing, you not laugh about it.”
“Is strange, is it not?” Perugino mused, “Let us agree that the backside is the only intrinsically humorous object which is shared by both the nobility and the bourgeoisie. Bourgeoisie behinds have a different popular name, is it not so? But all the same, whatever you call them...”
Tort said: “A rose by any other name.”
“Whatever you call it, it is subject to same indignities and the same discomforts.”
“This is my backside you talking about!” Bolec shouted.
“If I were a wealthy man,” Perugino went on, “it would cause me a great deal of unhappiness to know that from at least one aspect I was no better than the common beggar. But as it is, I can find a certain comfort in it.”
Hmm… an Englishman to gut with my new blade. And here I was planning to go home and shave my monobrow.
We were talking recently about Harlequin’s early days as a publisher of more than romance fiction. Above is another example—Bats with Baby Faces by W. Stanley Moss, a former British Army officer who wrote such best sellers as Ill Met by Moonlight and A War of Shadows. Bats with Baby Faces, the title of which references bat-like masks rather than actual bats, deals with intrigue and smuggling in the Deir-ez-Zor region of Syria, and in Cairo, where Moss lived in a villa that became a hub for the British social set. The most famous of his numerous real-life adventures occurred during that period, and that time also served as inspiration for much of his fiction. Harlequin’s edition of Bats with Baby Faces was published in 1952, and the cover art, with its mean caricature of an Egyptian who’s so swarthy he’s—bizarrely—purple, is uncredited. More Harlequin here and here.
Please don’t! *gasp* I’ll tip more! I’ll rate you a 10 on the hotel evaluation form! *wheeze* Really! Let me get a pen!
Above, an unusually violent but very effective cover from Oliver Brabbins for Manning O’Brine’s Dagger Before Me, Corgi Books. If you look out the window you see that the novel is set somewhere in the East. At a glance we would have guessed Istanbul, but it turns out to be Cairo and Damascus, with spies, agents, murder, and mayhem, 1958.
Egyptian billionaire calls up an employee and asks for a big favor.
In Egypt yesterday, billionaire hotel and resort magnate Hisham Talaat Moustafa was sentenced to death by hanging after hiring a hitman to kill his ex-lover, Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim. Tamim was knifed to death at her home in Dubai last year by Mohsen el-Sukkary, a security guard employed at one of Moustafa’s numerous hotels. Moustafa’s involvement became clear through phone records and other evidence, and el-Sukkary’s hand in the crime was determined after he left DNA at the murder scene and was caught on a security camera.
Suzanne Tamim became famous in 1996 after winning an American Idol-style competition, but her career ran into problems, and she split with her manager-husband. Her affair with Moustafa was a closely guarded secret because he is married. When it soured last year Tamim took up residence in Dubai, reportedly to distance herself. Moshen el-Sukkary, who was also sentenced to death by hanging, flew to Dubai after agreeing to a two million dollar fee for his services and tricked Tamim into opening her apartment door by posing as an employee of the property. Once inside, he attacked the singer with a knife and eventually slashed her throat, but not before leaving ample evidence behind, including his own blood.
There had been widespread interest in the case in Egypt—and throughout the Arab world—because the wealthy and highly connected are seen as above the law. It was particularly thought to be true of Moustafa, who is a member of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party and is close to President Hosni Mubarak’s youngest son, Gamal. But in a surprising development, Moustafa was stripped of his parliamentary immunity before the trial. Moustafa might still dodge the hangman—his case will be going through a mandatory review by religious authorities, and an appeal to the high court, which means his connections may yet serve him.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1987—Andy Warhol Dies
American pop artist Andy Warhol, whose creations have sold for as much as 100 million dollars, dies of cardiac arrhythmia following gallbladder surgery in New York City. Warhol, who already suffered lingering physical problems from a 1968 shooting, requested in his will for all but a tiny fraction of his considerable estate to go toward the creation of a foundation dedicated to the advancement of the visual arts.
1947—Edwin Land Unveils His New Camera
In New York City, scientist and inventor Edwin Land demonstrates the first instant camera, the Polaroid Land Camera, at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. The camera, which contains a special film that self-develops prints in a minute, goes on sale the next year to the public and is an immediate sensation.
1965—Malcolm X Is Assassinated
American minister and human rights activist Malcolm X is assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City by members of the Nation of Islam, who shotgun him in the chest and then shoot him sixteen additional times with handguns. Though three men are eventually convicted of the killing, two have always maintained their innocence, and all have since been paroled.
1935—Caroline Mikkelsen Reaches Antarctica
Norwegian explorer Caroline Mikkelsen, accompanying her husband Captain Klarius Mikkelsen on a maritime expedition, makes landfall at Vestfold Hills and becomes the first woman to set foot in Antarctica. Today, a mountain overlooking the southern extremity of Prydz Bay is named for her.
1972—Walter Winchell Dies
American newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winchell, who invented the gossip column while working at the New York Evening Graphic, dies of cancer. In his heyday from 1930 to the 1950s, his newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, he was read by 50 million people a day, and his Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people.
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