As Gore Vidal tells the story in the foreword to the 2011 Vintage edition of this book, he had a couple of problems back in the early 1950s. One was that he’d antagonized a powerful book critic for the New York Times, with the result that the newspaper was not reviewing his books. This led to lower sales, which led to problem number two: lack of money! A friend suggested he turn his hand to writing mystery novels under a pen name, and shortly Edgar Box was born. His literary career lasted for three novels, of which Death in the Fifth Position is the first.
All three Box books star Peter Cutler Sargeant II, a New York public-relations specialist. In this one, the Grand St. Petersburg Ballet hires him to do damage control after choreographer Jed Wilbur is outed as a Communist and their new production is threatened with protests if Wilbur is not fired. Things get complicated when one of the troupe’s dancers takes a death plunge to the stage during a performance, and Inspector Gleason of the NYPD fixes on replacement dancer (and Sargeant’s love interest) Jane Garden as the suspect. There’s more killing and assorted intrigue before Sargeant figures out who the real murderer is.
Vidal had already published several novels before Edgar Box made his debut, and he knew how to keep the reader interested. As a story about show business, the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Sargeant’s love life, it’s entertaining; in fact, I sometimes found myself wishing we could get past the murder-investigation parts and back to what I (and Vidal, I suspect) thought were the really interesting parts.
As a mystery? Sadly, it’s one of those full-length novels where the whole thing turns on a single clue that was mentioned exactly once. Technically fair, but if you’re going for longer than Encyclopedia Brown length, you’d better have more backing up your solution, or make sure the clue is utterly brilliant. Neither of those is the case here. I closed the book more annoyed than anything else, and I won’t be going out of my way to hunt down the other Box novels.