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.

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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.

Chandler on Style

‘I may satisfy myself with Richard II or a crime novel and tell all the fancy boys to go to hell, all the subtle-subtle ones that they did us a service by exposing the truth that subtlety is only a technique, and a weak technique at that; all the stream-of-consciousness ladies and gents, mostly the former, that you can split a hair fourteen ways from the deuce, but what you’ve got left isn’t even a hair; all the editorial novelists that they should go back to school and stay there until they can make a story come alive with nothing but dialogue and concrete description: oh, we’ll allow them one chapter of set-piece writing per book, even two, but no more; and finally all the clever-clever darlings with the fluty voices that cleverness, like perhaps strawberries, is a perishable commodity. The things that last — or should — I admit they sometimes miss — come from deeper levels of a writer’s being, and the particular form used to frame them has very little to do with their value. The test of a writer is whether you want to read him again years after he should by the rules be dated.’

Read more at Brain Pickings.