Crime Fiction: The Creative/Critical Nexus

If you’re interested in crime writing at all, check out this issue of TEXT magazine: Crime Fiction: The Creative/Critical Nexus, edited by Rachel Franks, Jesper Gulddal and Alistair Rolls. I am very happy to have my close analysis of Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man [PDF download].



Special Issues Series
Number 37 October 2016

Crime Fiction: The Creative/Critical Nexus
Edited by Rachel Franks, Jesper Gulddal and Alistair Rolls

Rachel Franks, Jesper Guldall and Alistair Rolls

Carolyn Beasley
Writing a murderous mother: a case study on the critical applications of creative writing research to crime fiction

Rachel Franks
Learning all the tricks: critiquing crime fiction in a creative writing PhD

Jason Bainbridge
Lawyer as critic: analysing the legal thriller through the works of Grisham, Gardner and Lee

Donna Lee Brien and Rachel Franks
Trial by jury and newspaper reportage: re-writing women’s stories from legal transcripts and contemporaneous journalism

Alistair Rolls
Creative, critical, intertextual: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Heath A Diehl
‘There are times when an old rule should be abandoned, or a current rule should not be applied’: narration, innovation and hardboiled fiction in Sue Grafton’s “T” is for Trespass

Matthew McGuire
Narratives of apprehension: crime fiction and the aftermath of the Northern Irish Troubles

Jean Anderson
Something old, something new, something borrowed: imitation, limitation and inspiration in French crime fiction

Jamie Popowich
The endangered species list: the mercurial writing of Charles Willeford and the strange case of The Shark-Infested Custard

KA Laity
Subtle hues: character and race in Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man

Leigh Redhead
There was nothing, there was nowhere to go: writing Australian rural noir

Jesper Gulddal and Alistair Rolls
Detective fiction and the critical-creative nexus

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.

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.

Readings for the Noir(ish) Course

I’m teaching our crime fiction course in the spring, which hasn’t been taught in a while. This is a reading not a writing course. I’m still deciding on the three films I can squeeze in (I’ve yet to write up the syllabus) but I’ve had to fix the readings because the students need to order them soon. In other words, I’m not looking for a debate about the choices made. The clown is down.

My own peculiar tastes show here; I envision my role as ‘gateway drug’ to more of the dark stuff. Also, I plan to persuade some of pals to chat to the class, either in person or via tech (cough, looking in your direction!). I balk at having all 20th century readings, and Poe is a necessary place to kick off the idea of ‘detective fiction’ in English language literature, though I quickly focus on that period.

Films? At the moment it’s Double Indemnity, The Third Man and Night of the Hunter, but I’ve not made my mind up. I have also considered choosing films of the books to compare and contrast, however at the moment I’m leaning away from that, tempting though it may be. Maybe Mildred Pierce to slip in Cain after all or something with Ida Lupino — I have to decide soon. It’s tough to choose. So here’s the choices if you want to read along —

Edgar Poe: The Purloined Letter (available online for FREE)

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Blank Wall

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place

Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train

Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Me

Chester Himes: Cotton Comes to Harlem

Another class would be another set of choices: I dropped Margaret Millar and James M. Cain when I knew I was overloading the reading. There’s just too much great stuff. I’d love to do a Brit Grit or international noir course. Maybe soon.

Friday’s Forgotten Books: In a Lonely Place

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELYThis book is superb. While Jim Thompson’s later (1952) The Killer inside Me holds pride of place for many noir fans as an early dissection of a very bad man, Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 novel may be one of the finest ever written. It’s been eclipsed to a great extent by the popularity of the Nicholas Ray film, which is strikingly different. Humphrey Bogart plays Dix Steele and Gloria Grahame at her most radiant plays Laurel Gray. The changes made to the narrative in the film deserve a whole essay themselves, which I may be writing at some point in the nearish future (because I need to add to my to do list).

From the first pages we know we’re following the path of a serial killer; these days even your granny knows all about serial killers. Everyone has seen or at least knows about Silence of the Lambs (I won’t digress into the effect of labeling a film ‘thriller’ rather than ‘horror’…), but this novel offered insight into a killer that few had seen. It’s masterful. And riveting: you may not sympathise with this terrible man, but you will be completely fascinated by his attempts to pass for human.He understands human behaviour, he tries to ape it – and he tries not to kill but in the end he can’t really see how not to do what he feels compelled to do. How best to masquerade? He pretends to be a writer. Hughes has him name-check the masters: Chandler, Hammett, Gardner, Queen and Carr. “It should be a bestseller if you could combine all those,” his pal’s wife Sylvia tells him.

I have a dog-eared No Exit Press copy. There are so many passages that shine with crystalline perfection. Here are some:

They had happiness and happiness was so rare…More rare than precious things, jewels and myrrh. Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears  suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago, in the ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.

She wasn’t beautiful, her face was too narrow for beauty, but she was dynamite. He stood like a dolt, gawking at her.

He finished his drink. “I don’t like mornings either,” he said. “That’s why I’m a writer.”

Laurel’s eyes took stock of Brub in the same way they had taken stock of Dix on the first meeting. Thoroughly, boldly, despite Sylvia’s presence. It might be Laurel knew no better, it might be unconscious. The only way she knew how to look at a man.

Fear wasn’t a jagged split of light cleaving you; fear wasn’t a cold fist in your entrails; fear wasn’t  something you could face and demolish with your arrogance. Fear was the fog, creeping about you, winding its tendrils about you, seeping into your pores and flesh and bone. Fear was a girl whispering a word over and again, a small word you refused to hear although the whisper was a scream in your ears, a dreadful scream you could never forget. You heard it over and again and the fog was a ripe red veil you could not tear away from your eyes…

Hughes should be getting more hero worship: words like these should raise goosebumps with their uncanny grace.

See all the FFB choices at Patti Abbott’s blog.

You can watch the film online (no guarantees on quality).