Description: With McCarthyism reaching fever pitch in 1950s America, Peter Sargeant – a dashing PR man – is hired by the Grand St Petersburg ballet to fend off rumours that their star choreographer is a communist. But New York’s ballet world is shocked when, on the opening night, the lead ballerina plummets to her death from a wire, maintaining her classical pose in the ‘fifth position’ as she hits the floor.
Gore Vidal’s earlier novel The City and the Pillar was published in 1948 when the author was 23 years old. Its central story of a homosexual relationship caused such a scandal that the New York Times book critic refused to review any book by Gore Vidal. Others followed his lead and the author found himself at a loss as to how to continue to earn a living through his pen until a publisher suggested that he turn his hand to writing under a different name. Death In the Fifth Position was published in 1952 – the first of a trio of entertainments featuring Peter Cutler Sargeant II as a publicist turned private eye.
Episode 1: Peter Sargeant, a young publicist, is invited to the offices of the Grand St Petersburg ballet.
2: Our narrator, Peter Sargeant, is beginning to get to know the members of the Grand St Petersburg ballet company. Their complicated relationships have already come to his attention when he overheard the conductor Miles Sutton threatening to kill his wife, Ella, the lead ballerina in the new ballet.
3: It becomes clear that Ella Sutton’s death was not an accident. What is also clear is that one of the ballerinas is pregnant and the father of the child (as the whole company knows) is Miles Sutton, the conductor and widower.
4: At Peter’s suggestion, Jane Garden – his new girlfriend – has stepped in to take on the lead role played by the murdered ballerina, Ella Sutton. In the meantime, Detective Gleason has some questions to ask Peter about ‘the murder weapon’.
5: The story continues with the members of the Grand St Petersburg ballet anticipating the imminent arrest of the husband of the murdered ballerina. Not only had Miles Sutton been asking his wife for a divorce, he was also hiding a serious drug habit. Questions remain however over the murder weapon – the pair of shears found by our narrator, Peter, after the murder took place. The performances of the now sell-out ballet continue as does the investigation, and tonight a wealthy patron holds a party for the company.
6: There’s shocking news for the cast of the ballet just as everyone is anticipating the arrest of conductor Miles Sutton for the murder of his wife. Peter Sargeant’s role as a publicist is rapidly becoming that of detective.
7: With Miles Sutton’s death confirmed as a gruesome accident, Detective Gleason declares the case closed. Peter is however a little curious as to why Mr Washburn had been writing letters seeking a replacement for Ella Sutton before she was murdered. Nonetheless they are all looking forward to the final performance in the first run of Eclipse.
8: Did she jump or was she pushed. Now there are three deaths.
9: Looks like the Russian contingent owns the murderer.
10: It would appear that Mr Washburn has decided to let Jane Garden take the fall. He is willing to see her arrested and have her reputation ruined even when she is found innocent, in order for the ballet company to continue its tour. Peter continues to piece together his theory of what happened, but time is running out. He needs to spend some time with Louis to find out what he knows. It’s an evening that involves alcohol and a bathhouse.
Written by Edgar Box (Gore Vidal)
Béla Bartók – Concerto For Orchestra (1943) (Full)