Tag Archives: Phoenix

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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The Killer is Dying by James Sallis

American crime author James Sallis is slated to cull a new slew of fans thanks to the upcoming release of the film, Drive , based on a novel of the same name. Sallis is best known for his Lew Griffin series novels, but Sallis’s latest,  The Killer is Dying is a stand-alone novel. The story is set in Phoenix, Arizona and focuses on three seemingly very different characters: Christian, a freelance contract killer, Sayles a middle-aged, depressed Phoenix detective, and Jimmie Kostof, a teenager who’s been abandoned by his parents. Ultimately A Killer is Dying is not about the solution of a crime, but the unsolved mysteries of life and the abyss of loneliness, death and despair we all face.

Christian, who advertises his services by placing and responding to ads in various known mercenary magazines, is in Phoenix to kill John Rankin, a pedestrian character who seems unlikely to offend anyone. Christian finds himself wondering why a man like  Rankin ends up at the wrong end of paid hit:

How this man could possibly be of such concern as to bring someone to engage his services, Christian can’t imagine–a nondescript office-dweller at a nondescript accounting firm in a featureless city where everything is dun-colored.

None of that is any concern of his. Interesting though that he thinks it.

Christian stalks his prey in order to stage the hit, but someone else gets there first. But there’s a problem; Rankin isn’t dead. He’s only wounded, and with cops sniffing around the crime, Christian should move on but he doesn’t.  To complicate matters, Christian, a papertrail “ghost”  who has left no traceable evidence of his existence on the planet, is dying, and he knows he has very little time left. So why spend what’s left on the Rankin hit? Is he motivated by professional pride, curiosity, a desire to finish what he started, or is there something deeper going on? 

Sayles and his partner, Graves begin investigating the shooting, and in another story thread, Jimmie, a teen abandoned by both of his parents, struggles to survive by trading items over the internet in order to raise a little cash. Jimmie is increasingly drawn to a blog site to read the mysterious comments of someone called Traveler. Jimmie has begun to experience intense and violent dreams–clips from the life of the hired contract killer, Christian:

Jimmie tried to remember if he had ever dreamed as someone else. Others in dreams changed, sure, the walk-ons, the companions, but weren’t people always themselves in their dreams?

We see clips from Christian’s earlier life, a strangely detached childhood and a violent stint in prison. Christian recalls some of the hits he made and the mysteries of the lives he brutally took. Similarly, Sayles recalls some of the crimes he’s covered in his career, the bodies of victims whose lives are violently interrupted and extinguished:

What you wound up remembering, what kept coming back to you, were not the whacked-out, bizarre crimes, the hatchet murders, the double homicides, bunco and bank jobs, but simple things. The look in a father’s eyes when you told him that his son had been killed while buying a Pepsi at the AM/PM on the corner. The trumpet case that had sprung open when its owner got shot in a drive-by, and you stood there noticing the way the bell of the horn was crumpled in on itself. The half-finished castle of building blocks in an abused child’s room. The suicide letter of words and phrases cut and pasted from favorite books, a crazy quilt of fonts and sizes, the books themselves put back in their places on the shelves.

These three characters, the contract killer, the cop and the abandoned teen,  physically connect in only the vaguest ways–one character will enter the screen as another leaves, or perhaps one character will pass another with just the barest acknowledgment, and yet the three men–all at different phases of their lives are inexplicably intertwined. Just as Jimmie has Christian’s dreams, there’s the idea of parallel lives crisscrossing through space with occasional moments that overlap. These metaphysical aspects of the novel (the shared dreams, collective unconscious, the comments by Traveler) serve to deepen the book’s sense of mystery and connection between the characters.

The novel goes back and forth between its three main characters. Jimmie struggles with loneliness, Christian digs into the truth behind the Rankin shooting, and Sayles, whose bleak home life includes a dying wife, can’t get the Rankin shooting out of his head. Perhaps Sayles’ fascination with the Rankin case is a much-needed distraction from his personal life, or perhaps he connects with Christian in ways he doesn’t understand.

A great deal of the novel maintains a dreamlike quality when describing the passage of everyday life:

He watched a bus disgorge its load of the last night folk heading home and replace them with those just beginning their day, wondering how many of them might be thinking about their lives , where they’d wound up, where they’d began, the curves and crooks and bland mystery of it all, all these Jonahs.

And again:

A bus comes by, one of those segmented doubles that looks like a worm. Space for, what, a hundred people within? With maybe a dozen heads afloat in the windows. Its sides bear banner ads for action movies and portraits of  local newscasters with too many teeth. He watches the bus work its cautious way around a corner.

Beautifully written, the novel maintains an almost dream-like pacing, and yet the novel itself is tightly-written–racking in at just 232 pages.  Not a word seems to be wasted, and although the book covers some emotionally devastating territory, Sallis’s tale is restrained and eloquent, and yet at the same time strangely disturbing.

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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