Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Ride the Pink Horse , a brooding tale set in a dreary New Mexico town during its fiesta, written by American crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993). Due to his lack of funds (and no hotel room), the story’s protagonist resentfully finds himself befriended by the local Mexicans and Indians, while he longs to be one of the privileged white crowd who command a seemingly better life of swanky hotel rooms, fine dinners, and good-looking blondes. In The Expendable Man, Hughes explores racial divisions but from an entirely different aspect.
The novel begins with UCLA medical intern, Hugh Denismore, driving his mother’s white Cadillac to the family home and his niece’s wedding in Phoenix. He’s driving through Indio–a bleached out desert town, and immediately we know that there’s some unspecified problem. Hugh feels uncomfortable and threatened by some of the rowdy behaviour of the locals. After getting something to eat at a drive-in restaurant, he continues his journey in the hot afternoon sun, and then around sundown, he sees a hitchhiker, a young girl, standing in the shade of a tree. Hugh hesitates and then decides to stop and give her a ride….
The girl, who claims to be 18, says her name is Iris Croom. She has a story about how she ended up hitchhiking in the middle of the desert, and part of that story includes an aunt who lives in Phoenix. Hugh doesn’t believe the girl, but he senses her very real vulnerability underneath her prickly, sly, and opportunistic behaviour. Suspecting that Iris is a minor, perhaps 15 or 16 at most, and knowing that he can’t take Iris over the state line, he drops her off at the bus station at Blythe and buys her a bus ticket to Phoenix. Hugh travels on thinking that this will be the last he sees of the girl. He’s wrong.
The Expendable Man begins with a sense of underlying tension and with the feeling that the characters exist in an indifferent environment in which a human being could easily disappear without a trace:
Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun.
This bleak indifference reflected in the geography of the desert continues throughout the novel through the behaviour of a number of people who, as fate would have it, can affect Hugh’s future.
Hughes crafts her novel cleverly. There’s an unexplained and seemingly out-of-place nervous edge to Hugh’s behaviour. He feels uneasy when the rowdy Indio teenagers harass him, and he worries that someone will see that he gave Iris a ride. Why is he worried? Why is he troubled by a few rude locals?
Far ahead on the road, he saw the shape of an oncoming car as it lifted itself over a culvert. He switched on his lights. The sky was still pale, the pale lavender of twilight, but the sand world had darkened. It was difficult enough to drive at this hour, the lights would identify the presence of his car to the one approaching. When the other car passed his, headed toward Indio, he saw it was yet another jalopy filled with kids. it was hopped up; it zoomed by, with only scraps of voices shrilling above the sound of the motor.
In his rear-view mirror, he watched until it disappeared in the distance. Just for a moment, he had known fear. It might be the same group that hectored him in town. The trap might be sprung by his picking up the girl; they might swing about and come after him. Only when the car had disappeared from sight, did he relax and immediately feel the fool. It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.
What are the “old experiences” that cause him to remember a sense of fear?
To dismiss one of the central issues of the story as a writerly conceit would be both erroneous and an underestimation of this very clever, extremely well-paced and well-crafted mystery novel. While Hughes constructs what appears to be an easy-to-guess and predictable situation, in her hands, her final novel shows a writer at the peak of her creative talent. In Ride the Pink Horse, Sailor feels the impact of being a nobody in a dreary backwater town, and in contrast Hugh, in The Expendable Man, well on his way to affluence and a prestige career discovers that his world of privilege is a fragile facade which is rapidly ripped away when he becomes the prime suspect of a murder investigation. And it’s a credit to the skills of the writer that the novel’s tension does not exist in Hugh’s identity, but in the mystery that unfolds. Ride The Pink Horse and The Expendable Man cover some similar territory: power, race & privilege. Both novels also explore societal divides but whereas Ride the Pink Horse suffered from a lack of tension, the tension in The Expendable Man never lets up. Dorothy B. Hughes is probably best remembered for her novel In a Lonely Place which was made into the iconic noir film starring Humphrey Bogart and one of my eternal favourites, Gloria Grahame. In spite of a number of crime novels to her credit, Hughes is in danger of slipping into ill-deserved obscurity, so fans of American crime fiction should applaud this New York Review Books Classic edition which should, thanks to their reputation, go a long way to ensuring Hughes is not forgotten.
Review copy from the publisher