The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes

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The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: A personal view of the effects of racial prejudice in the form of a distinguished thriller that examines edgy social issues and provides the reader with fast moving narrative.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 344 Date: September 2006
Publisher: Persephone Books
ISBN: 978-1903155585

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Dorothy B Hughes (1904-93) took a journalism degree in Kansas City, Missouri and started her distinguished career with a prize-winning book of poems. Her first hard-boiled thriller appeared in 1940 and it was followed by more than a dozen in the next decade. Three were made into noir films and in 1944 Hughes went to Hollywood to assist Hitchcock on his film, Spellbound. Here she met Ingrid Bergman and consequently Humphrey Bogart came to buy the film rights to one of her novels.

The Expendable Man was her last book and appeared in 1963, a time when Hughes was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It combines high suspense with an examination of the endemic racism in the town of Phoenix, Arizona. Hughes had learnt her craft thoroughly; influenced by deep readings of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and William Faulkner. She also had written a critical study of Erle Stanley Gardner, perhaps best remembered for the Perry Mason series. It is the lawyers, petty criminals, politicians, soured plainclothesmen of Phoenix that form the suffocating web around the novel's heroic protagonist, doctor Hugh Densmore, that gives this novel a dramatic momentum and an insight into the morally corrupt towns- folk and contrasts Phoenix and its suburbs, with the magnificent circling and exotic desert.

Densmore, a medic from Los Angeles hospital driving through along the highway from Indio, through the hot desert littered with hazy clumps of mesquite, on an early May evening is making his way to a family event in Phoenix. He stops to give a lift to the feckless, reckless and manipulative Iris, a rebellious teenager on a wild and urgent mission. This initial act of generosity is one which Hugh comes to deeply regret and propels him into an entanglement of Kafkaesque proportions. Without revealing the taut and swiftly flowing plot, which would spoil the reading, suffice it to say that carefully crafted dialogue and what seems like Densmore's paranoia makes this a thrilling and convincing read. With a combination of dramatic skill and sensitive understanding, huge issues of crime, illegal abortion and diehard racial discrimination are handled. This compelling novel is an insight into America at a time when President Kennedy was encountering the vigorous opposition and enduring rigidity of demagogues like Governor George Wallace.

The engaging and driven plot has many heart-rending at moments. Hugh Densmore is forced to dissemble to his own family. Indeed circumstances conspire to inhibit his free pursuit of Ellen, the elegant lady that he loves and admires. A significant pleasure in reading Hughes is her poetic and cinematic description of atmosphere; Phoenix, its peculiar suburbs and the drive across the copper and tan sands surrounding the highways that lead into it. There are passages describing anonymous motels, drugstores and diners that repeatedly remind the reader of the anonymity encountered in Edward Hopper's well-known painting Nighthawks. Dominic Power points out in an intriguing afterword just how this background scene was an important prompt in Hughes's writing. The bleached desert motorway becomes reminiscent of a Georgia O' Keefe landscape. The heat of the day personifies the crushing rapidity impinging on Densmore forcing him to seek a resolution of the situation into which he has been placed.

There is a sense of isolation which dire circumstances force upon Hugh and is particularly poignant in relation to the beautiful Ellen, whose encouragement and earnest support underlines his compelled dependency upon her and his consequent loss of a certain sense of dignity. This is reinforced in pellucid passages, Hugh and Ellen drove away in silence, over the winding deserted roads that led to town. The moon was high and white; each fence post, each clump of cactus was as distinctly outlined as by the sun. The mountains were moon-gray against the deep night sky. A dog barked from a distant house, the only reminder that they were not on a distant planet.

Within the confines of a provocative thriller, Dorothy Hughes has written a superb evocation of American society on the turning point of change. There is a tangible feeling of temperature and pressure- the effect of this is to produce a metamorphosis in the characters which is as instructive as it is engaging to read. Persephone Books have done an excellent job in resurrecting this classic novel which appeals on many levels and holds an emotional tone which is bracing, moving and instructive about the creative struggle for goodness, legality, fairness and truth.

Many thanks to Sally Beaumann of Persephone Books for handing the reviewer a personal copy of this penetrating text at the inimitable Morrab Library in Penzance. Persephone Books has an attractive blog.

Further reading suggestions:

The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin and The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

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