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.