Monday, April 18, 2022

#1954Club: Death Likes It Hot

Death Likes It Hot is the last book in a short series of three mysteries about a publicist who also ends up investigating murders. The author was Edgar Box; later it was revealed that this was a pseudonym used by Gore Vidal. This book is set in the Hamptons and was published in 1954. 

This is the first book I read for the 1954 Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings.

Peter Cutler Sargeant II is young, around 30, and has his own public relations agency in New York City. He is an amateur sleuth whose involvement in crime solving is mostly accidental. But by this third book in the series he is fairly well known for his prowess in that area.

In this book he has been invited to spend a weekend in the Hamptons by a society woman who wants to discuss a possible job. There are a few other people staying there at the same time: her niece and the niece's husband, a well­-known artist; a woman who writes books and has a column in a magazine; a brother and sister who are very close, acting almost like a married couple. The niece dies shortly after he arrives, while swimming in the ocean, in full view of all the guests. The death is suspicious but is it murder?

I also have an omnibus edition published in 2010 with introductions for each book by Gore Vidal. The introductions are very interesting.  Gore Vidal was unable to get his books reviewed by the New York Times for several years in the early fifties, which severely curtailed his income. A publisher talked him into writing a few mysteries using a pseudonym, and the Peter Sergeant series was the result. And the books did keep him afloat financially for quite a while.

How did this book reflect its time? 

There was definitely sexism in male attitudes toward women, which is normal for books written in the 1950s, but there were also intelligent and interesting female characters whose lives were not centered on finding a man and being taken care of. 

Also, I noted that both of the books I read for the 1954 Club were about people with a comfortable life style. Obviously people who live in the Hamptons, even at that time, were rich, and most of their friends and guests were also well-to-do. The books I chose were mystery novels and I think there was a tendency at that time for the stories to center around the rich or those with comfortable means. Certainly a majority of the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout and the Agatha Christie novels bear that out. Not that I ever had any objection to that; I don't mind at all reading about lifestyles that are very different than mine.


The following paragraph is from a review in 1001 Midnights (1986, ed. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller).

Clever deductions, fair play with the reader, and the Christie-Queen bag of tricks are not Vidal’s strong points. But his mastery of the language permeates even these mysteries that he himself shrugs off as potboilers cranked out for money, and his tone of cynical, good-humored tolerance toward an America populated exclusively by crooks, opportunists, and buffoons is as close to the true spirit of H. L. Mencken as mystery fiction is ever likely to see.

For myself, I would say that I enjoyed the plot and the picture of the Hamptons in 1954. Peter Sergeant is a pleasant and intelligent sleuth. In this book he was just as interested in making connections with his friend, Liz Bessemer, as he was in solving the crime. It was not the best mystery I ever read, but it was an entertaining story.

I know very little about Gore Vidal. After reading this book I am interested in trying some books by him aside from the mysteries, but I have no idea where to start. Any suggestions are welcome.

From what I have read about the books in the series, this last one is the best one. I still plan to read the first two books. The first one, Death in the Fifth Position, is set in a dance company and the ballet world, and that sounds especially interesting.

Also see this post by Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp on Death Likes It Hot, with links to other posts about the earlier books in the series.


Publisher: Vintage Books, 1979 (orig. pub. 1954)
Length: 184 pages
Format: Paperback
Series:  Peter Cutler Sergeant II, #3
Setting: New York, The Hamptons
Genre:  Mystery
Source: Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2013.


Cath said...

I haven't read anything by Gore Vidal either, not sure I was even aware that he wrote crime fiction! LOL! I love the cover on your copy of this book.

I've read one ordinary fiction book from 1954 and will now concentrate on a couple of vintage crime books I think, which is where my comfort zone is these days. I have a Maigret book to read and Faintley Speaking by Gladys Mitchell.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Myra Breckingridge is a curiosity at best. I did read and enjoy 1876. I think there were others but I can't come up with a title.

TracyK said...

Cath, I like that cover a lot too, I wish I knew who the artist was.

Both of your crime fiction choices for 1954 sound good to me. I did not think of looking for a Gladys Mitchell book. One of the things I like about her writing is that she includes a lot of information about the time that it is set in and the daily activities and often descriptions of the countryside. Some books don't do that as much.

TracyK said...

Patti, I would not know much about Myra Breckinridge except for the movie (and I haven't seen the movie, but Glen went with his sister to see it back in 1970).

I will look into 1876. I see that it is part of the Narratives of Empire series that starts with Burr.

Margot Kinberg said...

Interesting choice, Tracy. And you bring up one of the things that's always a challenge when reading non-contemporary books: how do you deal with the 'isms' in a book. For me, it depends on just how many 'isms' there are, if I can put it that way. And it sounds as though this one has a solid story. And it's one I didn't even know Vidal had written.

TracyK said...

Margot, This story did not have any more sexism than most books of its time, and in some ways had more modern attitudes. But the sex itself was more front and center. Gore Vidal was a fan of Agatha Christie and was influenced by her work to a certain extent.

Lark said...

Death in the Fifth Position does sound very interesting! But this mystery does, too. :)

TracyK said...

Lark, I had had the 3-book collection for quite and while and I am glad I finally got around to reading this one. You never know what you will get when a non-mystery writer writes some mysteries. But often the results are good.

Simon T (Stuckinabook) said...

I'm glad this was an entertaining one! It's a great title.

TracyK said...

Simon, not only did I finally read something by Gore Vidal, but now I am inspired to read some of his non-mystery writing.

Todd Mason said...

Tracy--very glad you're involved in the Year Club roundelays! Where did you first catch up with this?

Someone kindly offered me all three of the Vidal paperbacks recently, and Things Got In The Way (I managed to mess up my foot while cleaning things up to make ready for my housemate to return home after some major surgery, and have been spending most of my time looking after her to one degree or another since)...I need to apologize for the fiddling about (I did have one of the Boxes, at least, already).

TracyK said...

Todd, I think I have done four of the Clubs, previous to this one: 1936, 1944, 1956, and 1976. The first one I did was in 2018, so I must have skipped some of them in between. I have enjoyed them very much. I like the unveiling of the next Year Club almost as much as the actual event itself.

Sorry to hear about your foot getting hurt and hope your housemate is getting better.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks! She's healing up faster than her surgical team anticipated, happily enough, while still feeling the effects to some degree. I'm about as able-bodied as normally (Nothing special).

I've participated in one Year Thing, perhaps two so far, I think. My favorite one, if not only, might be this:

TracyK said...

Todd, she is very lucky. When I have had surgery, they have always underestimated the amount of time I would need to recover. Glad to hear that you are doing fine.

I checked out your post for the 1956 Club in the comment above. I do remember that because I want to read something by Damon Knight. I did find that one story listed in the post is also in the Bug-Eyed Monsters anthology so I will have to locate that one and read it.

Katrina said...

I've read quite a lot by Gore Vidal, but years ago. I enjoyed his Narratives of Empire series.

1. Burr (1973)
2. Lincoln (1984)
3. 1876 (1976)
4. Empire (1987)
5. Hollywood (1989)
6. Washington, D.C. (1967)
7. The Golden Age (2000)

TracyK said...

Thanks, Katrina. I probably will start with Burr, which sounds very interesting, and then see if I want to try any of the earlier novels. If I like Burr I will then probably continue with the Narratives of Empire series.

Todd Mason said...

Tracy--I think so, as far, so good. Thanks--and hope you have a quicker recovery with any future operation than you've been facing in the past.

You can do worse than Damon Knight's 1950s work, almost without exception, so hope you enjoy the story in the Malzberg/Pronzini anthology (though that one is probably Knight's grimmest 1956 story!).

TracyK said...

You are right, Todd, Stranger Station is a pretty grim story. I read it this week for my latest Short Story Wednesday post. And enjoyed some of the other stories in the book.

Mallika@ LiteraryPotpourri said...

I'm aware of Vidal's other works though I haven't read any yet, but had no idea he wrote mysteries under a pseudonym as well. This sounds very entertaining.

TracyK said...

Mallika, I liked this mystery a lot and it was entertaining. I have heard this is the best of the three, but since the other two have interesting setting and characters, I will be reading those too.