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- The Expendable Man
- Originally published 1963, reissued by New York Review Books Classics 2012, 264 pp.
Classic Noir, Enduring Relevance
It’s the perfect noir opening – a man is driving alone across the California desert as twilight falls: “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.” In the midst of this barren landscape, he encounters a teenage hitchhiker. Thinking of his own sisters, he can’t bring himself to leave her there, though he intuits, correctly, that she’ll bring him trouble.
The man is Hugh Densmore, a medical student driving from LA to Phoenix for a family wedding. The girl proves manipulative and a liar, and the name she gives him turns out to be false. He seems to be rid of her when he reaches Phoenix, but she shows up again. A day later, the police find her floating in a canal outside Scottsdale. Hugh is innocent, but he knows he will be the prime suspect. Why is the driving issue in Hughes’s thriller, which skillfully uses the conventions of the genre to explore social divisions mid-century America preferred to gloss over.
Dorothy B. Hughes was one the most admired crime writers of her era. In 1931, her poetry had been selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets; her career as a writer of thrillers began in 1940 with The So Blue Marble, a critical success and the only work by Hughes I’d read before picking up The Expendable Man. Two of her later novels, Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place, were adapted for film. The film version of Ride the Pink Horse was produced (and partially written) by Joan Harrison, screenwriter on a number of Alfred Hitchcock’s early classics (and one of the few female producers in Hollywood at the time). This seems as fitting, as Hughes’s novels, like Hitchcock’s films, are as much exercises in paranoia as in puzzle-solving. Also reminiscent of Hitchcock is Hughes’s mastery of the mechanics of suspense. Along with contemporaries like Patricia Highsmith and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Hughes was a leading figure in a field – noir – that in retrospect is identified largely with male authors.
The Expendable Man, published in 1963, was Hughes’s last novel, though she continued to work as a critic and biographer for another two decades. It’s a difficult novel to write about, as about fifty pages in, readers learn something about the identity not of the killer, but of Hugh Densmore himself, which transforms our understanding of the story down to its most casual incidents. I want to keep the suspense intact for those readers who’d like to approach the story unspoiled, but I’m also aware that knowing the nature of the twist may pull in readers who might otherwise pass the book by. I’ll reveal it, but only after a spoiler alert.
There are intriguing parallels between The Expendable Man and The So Blue Marble – both feature protagonists caught up in complicated plots that put them in fear of their lives. Both characters feel they must keep their danger a secret, lying and dissembling to protect their nearest and dearest. Hughes has an undeniable gift for evoking a kind of claustrophobic terror, the sense of a world gone suddenly wrong. She has a fine ear for the moment when a casual encounter turns sinister, whether the setting is the dance floor at El Morocco or the deserted highway east of Indio.
Yet the protagonists and their situations are very different. Griselda, blonde heroine of The So Blue Marble, is rich and pretty enough to have been pursued by Hollywood. The blue “marble” of the title, a strange trinket first described in a Renaissance manuscript, is the kind of thing a James Bond villain might pursue. Hugh Densmore’s situation is far more tawdry and mundane, as he becomes the target of a police manhunt for the killer of a runaway found in an irrigation canal after a botched abortion. (Sidebar: Apparently, the term “floater” for such a body was already a part of police lingo in 1963).
But it’s Hugh’s identity, and his relationship to these events, that make the real difference. And here’s where I need to reveal what Hughes leaves unspoken until we are a quarter of the way into the book. It’s not just because he’s a modern master of California noir that Walter Mosley has provided the afterword. Hugh Densmore is black.
This is why his encounters along the highway are so charged with unease, why Hugh is so intensely aware of strangers’ reactions to him, whether he’s ordering a meal or buying a bus ticket, why he is so quick to envision the possible consequences of having an underaged (and white) girl in his car. And both Hugh and the girl’s real killer understand how it complicates his relationship with the forces of law and order.
Complicating things further is the issue of class. The car Hugh is driving is a Cadillac – a white Cadillac – owned by his mother; needless to say, this does not endear him to many of the white people he encounters. The Densmores are clearly part of what mid-century sociologist E. Franklin Frazier had dubbed the “Black Bourgeoisie” – members of the professional class, protecting their children as best they could from the harsh realities of life in a racially polarized America, warily navigating an imperfectly integrated world. Embodying the contradictions of this way of life is Ellen Hamilton, the light-skinned daughter of a Washington insider whose political connections may represent Hugh’s best hope.
The slow revelation of Hugh’s race is a fascinating – and very deliberate – choice on Hughes’s part. Seeing events through Hugh’s eyes, sharing his thoughts, I had assumed he was “like me” – white. The impact on white readers of the civil rights era must have been far more intense. One wonders how Hughes set about imagining Hugh Densmore’s world. (Was the friend to whom the book is dedicated, identified only as Charlesetta, one of her guides?)
The Expendable Man is not just a message novel, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? played for higher stakes. Hughes’s talent for evoking paranoia works symbiotically with the racial tensions she depicts. As befits a former poet, Hughes’s writing is economical yet stylish, atmospheric without being fussy. And as with almost any vintage detective novel, there are many pleasures to be had in the details of an earlier America. In this case it’s the Sun Belt at the dawn of suburban sprawl – a new world of car-oriented pleasures, from drive-in burger joints to lavish new palm-shaded motor courts whose rooms open onto brilliant blue pools. There are raw new shopping centers and highways, and far-flung suburban estates where steaks sizzle on the poolside grill as the host mixes another round of highballs. But the glossy, sun-struck surfaces cannot mask the underlying tensions, racial or sexual. In The Expendable Man, Hughes widens the classic crime novel’s field of view, and in doing so gives it new depth. It’s a very worthwhile rediscovery.