FFB: The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes
NYRB Classics
Afterword by Walter Mosley

Synopsis: “It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Densmore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

This is a much too overlooked classic. Hughes is a master stylist and brings to vivid life the increasing precariousness of an innocent man surrounded by common evil, pervasive prejudice and good intentions gone very very wrong. In short it’s brilliant. As Sarah Weinman writes, “Hughes didn’t just pre-date Jim Thompson, she also pre-dated Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, and other so-called Masters of Psychological Suspense or Noir. And her writing style stands up to the test of time.”

I’m writing an essay on the book for a special issue of the journal TEXT called “Crime Fiction and the Creative/Critical Nexus” so consider this just a preview of that longer piece. What I appreciate about this book — indeed most of Hughes’ writing — is her ability to subtly squeeze all the air out of a situation to make you and her protagonist squirm and begin to panic. Hugh Densmore has every reason to be a happy man, but a moment of kindness hurls him into a hell he cannot escape.

The book is an insightful exploration of American culture in the 1960s, a bubbling cauldron of conflicting notions of hope and destruction. As Walter Mosely notes in his afterword, “A white woman writing of a young black man’s problems with the law was certainly a kind of gamble” but she succeeds with “a poet’s eye for detail and feel for language.” Presumably she wasn’t a ex-war pilot serial killer either, but she embodies Dix Steele with a stark reality too. Hughes examines all the layers of racial interactions: there are outright bigots of course, but it’s all the nuances in between like the calculating law man who holds back his most rabid officers because, “this isn’t going to be any race affair” only because he doesn’t want to have to deal with “bleeding hearts” and the NAACP.

It’s not just the omnipresent undercurrent of racial tension that Hughes observes in Densmore’s story, but also the collisions caused by intersections of class and gender. He’s too conscious of the differences between his life and the woman he falls for at his sister’s wedding, her father a judge and her DC style much cooler than his own. Much as he longs for Ellen, he’s also afraid to put too much on her, feeling chivalrous for doing so. Like most of those who people noir tales, the young doctor makes foolish choices at times because he feels trapped by the limits of his situation. In Hughes’ hands we find his decisions entirely plausible even as we bite our nails waiting to see if things turn out as badly as we fear.

Check out the other overlooked books at Patti Abbott’s blog. Todd’s blog.

Classic Crime: William McIlvanney – Laidlaw

William McIlvanney

From its almost surreal opening McIlvanney’s Laidlaw grips the reader.  That first short chapter follows the frantic movements of a young murderer as he tries to find a place to hide. Told in second person, it offers an intimacy and yet an almost god-like insight into the tumbling thoughts of the killer. It’s breathtaking in its effectiveness, immersing the readers in vivid images but leaving them unable to understand how to connect them.

It comes as a bit of a relief to begin the next chapter in a more typical fashion, returning to the more neutral third person narrative and the now-familiar jaded cop — the beginnings of 70s cynicism. Laidlaw offers the prototype for so many iterations that followed. He’s not just the detective who’s ‘seen too much’; Laidlaw is permanently out of step with the human race.

Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him.

He’s not just consumed by his job; it’s a kind of existential ache that permeates every part of his being — and makes his pursuit of criminals unconventional yet very effective.

He was a potentially violent man who hated violence, a believer in fidelity who was unfaithful, an active man who longed for understanding. He was tempted to unlock the drawer in his desk where he kept Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno, like caches of alcohol.

His departmental rival, Milligan, reflects everything he hates: certainty, arrogance, and violence. They’re like oil and water and we see a lot of the clashes through the eyes of Harkness, the ambitious young detective who alternates between confusion, admiration and impatience dealing with his new partner.

McIlvanney slips between a variety of characters with ease, showing the world from the point of view of the parents whose daughter is missing, gangsters, and petty criminals. But Laidlaw remains at the center tying together all the disparate threads because he allows himself to see them.

I’ll end with one long quote that really captures the spirit of this excellent book which feels entirely contemporary. It comes after Laidlaw gets yet another dressing down from his boss:

They had these confrontations several times and always Frederick was at least as understanding as you could expect him to be, and always Laidlaw finished up depressed. The pair of them had the art of conjuring hopelessness together. They had managed it again. But at least Laidlaw had the melancholy satisfaction of feeling that he understood why, a little more clearly. Listening to Frederick’s advice, he had thought again of how much he disliked that room, the deodorised furnishings, the uncluttered desk, the smiling photograph, the ashtray never used. It was like a shrine to a God he didn’t believe in. It was the God of categories.

Good stuff: highly recommended.

Swank: Runyon First & Last

I thought I would try to remember to add pictures of some of the swanky old paperbacks I still have. I think this one came from Hal the Bookie (here’s hoping you rest in peace surrounded by comics and lurid paperbacks, just as in life). Can’t beat Runyon for swing.

Runyon1 Runyon2

Noir Classic: Ride the Pink Horse

Ride the Pink Horse
Dorothy B. Hughes

I do not understand that Mysterious Press cover. Is it some weird attempt to sell the book as ‘chick lit’? Because too many ‘modern’ men are going to be terrified of a book with ‘pink’ in the title already. This is a gritty and atmospheric novel that showcases Hughes skill at rendering lost men struggling to find their way without the traditional cultural handholds. As usual, she’s brilliant as she allows the downward spiral to snake all the way down. But you knew that, right? Chandler told you.

hughes pinkSailor is a hood from Chicago, thrust into the wild frontier of New Mexico, looking for his boss, the Senator, who betrayed him while setting up the murder of the Sen’s wife. He discovers that he’s not the only one following the boss: Mac, a cop from the Windy City, has made his way to this desert town, too. But is he after Sen — or Sailor?

The desert and its people confuse Sailor, but his habits of thought give way to new discoveries — and new alliances — without understanding why. The fiesta with its ritual observances casts an almost uncanny shadow over the town for this Catholic boy. His confusion about what’s right and wrong — and who is really a friend — demonstrate his confusion and anger. He has chances to avoid his noirish fate; he almost takes some of them.

Like all Hughes novels, there’s a boatload of awesome quotes. Here’s a few:

In destroying evil, even puppet evil, these merrymakers were turned evil…Fire-shadowed, their eyes glittered with the appetite to destroy.

He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important…whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even the cool-of-night smell unfamiliar…The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity.

‘Only the Indians are proud peoples…Because they do not care for nothing. Only this their country. They do not care about the Gringos or even the poor Mexicanos. These people do not belong to their country. They do not care because they know these peoples will go away. Sometime.’

And the rage was eating him again.

The Sen said something to Iris Towers and she slanted her eyes up at him and the smile on her mouth was the way you wanted a woman to smile at you. The way you didn’t want a woman to smile at a murderer.

The whole town was a trap. He’d been trapped from the moment he stepped off the bus at the dirty station. Trapped by the unknown, by a foreign town and foreign tongues and the ways of alien men. Trapped by the evil these people had burned and the ash that had entered their flesh.

Another dance. A warrior dance, the dancers lunging at each other, without warning letting out startling whoops. It made him jumpy. Then it was over, the dancers jingling away on soft feet, the drum beating away into silence. The crowd broke, speaking silly things to exorcise the spell.

And I could have gone on and on. Hughes is a great stylist who captures an unsettling sense of tension and dread incredibly well. Not enough people read her. They’re missing out.

Catch up with all of Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott‘s blog this week at BV Lawson’s blog.