Category Archives: Hughes Dorothy B.

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction ed. by Sarah Weinman

With the title Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction, how could I pass up reading this collection of 14 stories? And here’s the line-up:

  • Patricia Highsmith: The Heroine
  • Nedra Tyre: A Nice Place to Stay
  • Shirley Jackson: Louisa, Please Come Home
  • Barbara Callahan: Lavender Lady
  • Vera Caspary: Sugar and Spice
  • Helen Neilsen: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  • Dorothy Hughes: Everybody Needs a Mink
  • Joyce Harrington: The Purple Shroud
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Stranger in the Car
  • Charlotte Armstrong: The Splintered Monday
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis: Lost Generation
  • Margaret Millar: The People Across the Canyon
  • Miriam Allen Deford: Mortmain
  • Celia Fremlin: A Case of Maximum Need

Some of the names were familiar thanks to previous reading: Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, A Suspension of Mercy , The Cry of the Owl as well as a couple of short story collections) Vera Caspary (Bedelia, Laura, The Secrets of Grown-ups) and Dorothy Hughes (The Expendable Man, Ride the Pink Horse. I’d also heard of, and been meaning to read Celia Fremlin, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Neilsen, Margaret Millar (who seems to have faded from view while her husband Ross Macdonald remains widely read). Unknowns were: Miriam Allen Deford, Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. After reading the line-up, I knew I’d come away pleased to meet some old friends and delighted to find new names to explore. My expectations were fulfilled–although oddly enough, I was disappointed in the Highsmith story which was rather predictable, and the Dorothy Hughes story which fell flat.

Troubled DaughtersBut onward…

The gem of the collection here, and why am I not surprised, belongs to the Divine Vera Caspary. Yes, Sugar and Spice is a wonderful tale–either a long short story or a novella–it’s hard to tell on the kindle. This is a story within a story which opens with a California woman named Lissa who has a visitor one Sunday afternoon named Mike Jordan. He asks to put through a long-distance call to New York, and when he returns from making the call he asks Lissa if she would like to know who murdered the famous actor, box-office heartthrob, Gilbert Jones. This is an  unsolved murder, so naturally Lissa wants to know the answer, and Mike tells his tale which goes back several decades. In his youth, Mike made the acquaintance of two cousins–the very beautiful but very poor Phyllis, and the very plump, unattractive but very rich Nancy. These two girls grew up in bitter rivalry, and just how this rivalry plays out creates a tale of jealousy and revenge with Nancy and Phyllis fighting over the same man on more than one occasion. Phyllis, elegant, cool and slim looks beautiful no matter how poorly she’s dressed, and little fat Nancy wears the most expensive designer creations and always manages to look like a stale, overstuffed cupcake. This story would have made a great film, but that’s not too surprising given how many story treatments, screenplays and various adaptations Vera Caspary penned for the big screen.

Another favourite for this reader is “Louisa, Please Come Home.” This is the story of a young woman who flees her affluent home on the eve of her sister’s wedding. Is she motivated by fear, a desire for independence or is this simply an attempt to upstage her sister? I kept waiting for the motivation to be revealed, but author Shirley Jackson doesn’t take the stereotypical approach here, and instead the ending, which leaves more questions than answers, is deeply unsettling. Here’s Louisa, at a distance, keeping an eye on her disappearance through the newspaper stories:

I followed everything in the papers. Mrs. Peacock and I used to read them at the breakfast table over our second cup of coffee before I went off to work.

“What do you think about this girl who disappeared over in Rockville?” Mrs. Peacock would say to me, and I’d shake my head sorrowfully and say that a girl must be really crazy to leave a handsome, luxurious home like that, or that I had kind of a notion that maybe she didn’t leave at all–maybe the family had her locked up somewhere because she was a homicidal maniac. Mrs. Peacock always loved anything about homicidal maniacs.

Sarah Weinman’s introduction addresses the history of Domestic fiction, some of the best known names in the field, and the contribution to crime fiction by female authors. The stories in this collection address the rot within the domestic environment and also examines assaults against domestic security, so one story includes the Nanny from Hell while another story includes a nurse who simply can’t wait for her patient to die. We see women as victims, women as perps, women fighting over men, and while there are a number of deranged and damaged females in these pages, underneath the collection lies the unasked question: what happened to these women? Have they been damaged/driven to the point of insanity due to the constrictive roles handed to them by society? It’s an unsettling thought. In Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s excellent story, Stranger in the  Car, family patriarch, the very wealthy Carrol Charleroy, a man who imagines that he is ‘in charge’ of his household, discovers the hard way that he’s ‘managed’ by the women in his life, and he’s about to learn that he really knows nothing at all about these women–women he’s known for years. And finally, I have to mention Celia Fremlin’s wickedly nasty story A Case of Maximum Need, the story of an old lady who gets a phone installed in her apartment by a do-gooder who has no idea what she is dealing with. I particularly liked this story as I knew a woman in her 80s who masqueraded as a 29 year-old-woman in many internet courtship relationships with young males. I wonder what Celia Fremlin would make of that? Anyway, there’s a good range here, and this volume is especially recommended for those, like me, who’d like to discover some ‘new’ writers. It’s nice to see some of these names resurrected from obscurity.

Review copy

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Filed under Caspary Vera, Fiction, Fremlin Celia, Highsmith Patricia, Hughes Dorothy B., Jackson Shirley, Millar Margaret, Neilsen Helen, Sanxay Holding Elizabeth

The Expendable Man: Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

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

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Ride the Pink Horse: Dorothy Hughes (1946)

“A gun’s a bad thing to have handy.”

Author Dorothy Hughes (1904-1993) is arguably best known for her noir novel In a Lonely Place (1947) which became the basis of a Humphrey Bogart film. Ride the Pink Horse (1946) is another noir novel which was also made into a film–although one that’s fallen off the radar.  Ride the Pink Horse is a strange title, but its meaning becomes apparent as the story plays out. It’s both a literal reference to a horse on a merry-go-round, and a figurative reference to the fantasy of a better life,  “playing it big, fine clothes, fine car, fine hotels, society blondes.”  It’s the sort of life envied by a man who’s been born in poverty and is accustomed to having doors slammed in his face, as he watches, with simmering resentment, a lesser man, a “weasel” of a man, enjoying the best comforts of life just because he has money and social position.

The novel’s protagonist is a man called Sailor. Travelling from Chicago, he arrives in a “hick town” in New Mexico with some unfinished business to settle with his former employer, a sleazy politician with a “weasel face” who is known as the Sen.

He came in on the five o’clock bus. He was well to the back and he didn’t hurry. He remained seated there, his eyes alone moving while the other passengers churned front. His eyes moving and without seeming to move, through the windows on the right where he was seated, across the aisle through the left-hand windows. He saw no one he knew, no one who even looked as if he came from the city.  

Sailor arrives just as the 3-day long local Fiesta begins, and the first problem he encounters is that all the hotels are booked. Sailor begins his hunt for a room, lugging his suitcase along in the dust and the heat. At each hotel, he’s told by a desk clerk that there are no rooms available, and initially he takes the rejection personally–as if his money isn’t good enough, and at one point he even begins to pull out a wad of cash to prove he can pay. His fruitless search takes him lower and lower on the totem pole until he’s finally turned away by a clerk in a dingy hotel located next to a pool hall.

Sailor is in town to recover an unpaid debt. The Sen was supposed to pay Sailor, his “confidential secretary,” $1500 for his role in the cover-up of the murder of the Sen’s wealthy wife. The murder was set up to look like a robbery that went wrong, and Sailor got a $500 downpayment. After his wife’s death, Sen cashed in a $50,000 life insurance policy and split town. Now the Sen is here in New Mexico, hanging out in the town’s best hotel and panting after svelte silver blonde Iris Towers–“an angel who strayed into hell” who is so important to the Sen that “he’d crawl over the body of a dead woman to get to her.” Sailor followed the Sen to collect his thousand bucks, but now he thinks $5,000 is a fair sum to keep his mouth shut. $5,000 will be the seed money to start a better life–the sort of life that the Sen has.

He’d set up a little safe business of his own in Mexico, making book or peddling liquor, quick and easy money, big money. He’d get himself a silver blonde with clean eyes. Marry her. Maybe she’d have dough too, money met money and bred money. All he wanted was his just pay and he’d be over the border.

Without a hotel room and a place to wash, Sailor is acutely aware of his dusty, sweaty and rumpled appearance. It’s been a long time since Sailor has felt this small, and as he shuffles around town trying to find a room, he strikes up a relationship with a “fat and shapeless and dirty” man dubbed “Pancho Villa” by Sailor. Pancho Villa isn’t the man’s real name, of course, but this is an indication of Sailor’s attitude towards Mexicans. To Sailor, a portly dark-skinned man instantly becomes Pancho Villa, and “Pancho” is good-natured enough not to take offense. He’s the owner of a small, cheesy merry-go-round named  Tio Vivo, and soon Pancho and Sailor become drinking buddies.  Sailor discovers that the only people who show him any kindness are the Mexicans and the Indians, and yet while Sailor acknowledges this, he’s also very uncomfortable with the idea that he’s been relegated, by default, to this portion of the population. 

Not long after arriving in town, Sailor spots a Chicago cop named Mac, and at this point it’s unclear if Mac is there for Sailor or for the Sen. A game of cat-and-mouse begins between the three men as they alternately court and avoid the inevitable showdown. 

Sailor is not a particularly appealing protagonist. He arrives in town full of attitude towards the Mexican and Indian residents. His thoughts are full of racial commentary, and this makes for uncomfortable reading at times. As the novel wears on, however, Sailor’s actions never quite match his racist thoughts, so ultimately the racist part of Sailor seems to be a veneer more than anything else–a way of trying to establishing distance from the Mexicans and Indians he professes to disdain, and a way of trying to plant himself into the more affluent echelons of white society.

In Ride the Pink Horse Dorothy Hughes examines the class divisions in American society. The Senator is at the top of the heap, and Sailor, his one-time minion, given the taste of the good life, now wants to have what the Sen has. He envies him his room, his clothes and his woman. Frequently Sailor finds himself cast out of the better things in life by circumstance. He can’t for example get a room, and if he can’t get a room, he can’t take a shower. When Sailor tries to make his move, Mac, his doppelgänger, is lurking in the background, trying to offer Sailor choices that he doesn’t want.

On the down side, Ride the Pink Horse is not a page turner. While the plot scenario implies tension, it’s largely absent from the novel. Instead there’s a repetitiveness, a circular motion to the action that implies both an inevitability and an inescapability, and of course a circular motion that mirrors the cheap thrill of the merry-go-round.

He stood there, helpless anger knotting his nerves. Monotonously cursing the Sen, the dirty, double-crossing, lying whoring Senator Willis Douglass. It was the Sen’s fault he was in this god-forsaken town and no place to rest his feet. He hadn’t wanted to come here. He’d wanted it less and less as the bus traveled farther across the wasteland; miles of nothing, just land, empty land. Land that didn’t get anywhere except into more land, and always against the sky the unmoving barrier of mountains. It was like moving into a trap, a trap you couldn’t ever get out of. Because no matter how far you traveled, you’d always be stopped by the rigid mountains.

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Filed under Fiction, Hughes Dorothy B.