Death Before Bedtime
by Gore Vidal
Cover Artist: Design: Evan Gaffney Design
Review by Verna Suit
Vintage Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780307741431
Date: 22 March 2011 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In the 1950s, well-known man of letters Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries under the pen name Edgar Box. For the second of them, Death Before Bedtime, he chose a setting that he grew up in and knows well: the political and social world of Washington, D.C. Though filled with anachronisms (files in cabinets instead of computers, no cell phones, and everyone a smoker), the political machinations could come right out of today’s newspapers. As Death Before Bedtime opens, protagonist Peter Sargeant is on a train headed to Washington to meet a new client. Senator Leander Rhodes has hired him to do PR work connected with his upcoming presidential campaign and invites Peter to stay in his Massachusetts Avenue mansion. But after a long talk on the first night, Peter discovers that Rhodes is an ultra-conservative and "a terrible man," and starts to have misgivings about representing his new client. He needn't worry, though, because less than an hour later Rhodes is killed in an explosion.
Peter isn't the only house guest on this fateful night. Also in residence are several business and political colleagues who would prefer that some of their dealings not see the light of day, not to mention Rhodes' ambitious wife and his willful, grown daughter who enjoys behaving badly. All become suspects. The police are convinced that someone staying in the house caused the explosion and insist that everyone remain for at least a week while they investigate.
With his client dead, Peter decides to profit from the situation by writing a series of articles about the murder, and so starts his own investigation. Fortunately, people tend to confide in him, either because of his good looks and charm or his credentials as a former journalist. Gradually secrets come out about family and business relationships, leading Peter to conclude that everyone is “playing a charade.” He eventually unmasks the killer, but not before a second death occurs and almost a third.
Death Before Bedtime is a traditional mystery centered on a small group of characters in a closed setting. Instead of being sequestered in an English country house or on an island, they are in a grand house in the middle of Washington, D.C., with the political and social world continuing to swirl around outside. Cultural observer Vidal/Box at times clearly lets his personal prejudices come through, such as an unexpected excoriation of the ignorance and bigotry of small towns. And it was eye-opening to learn that among Café Society, 'appendectomy' was often a euphemism for 'abortion'. All in all, Death Before Bedtime is a charming book, providing a fascinating glimpse into the cultural life of almost 60 years ago.