It’s easy to focus on the very greatest books by Dorothy B. Hughes: after all, any one of them would be enough to make her name immortal. In A Lonely Place: possibly the first in-the-mind-of-serial-killer novel, a masterpiece of psychological insight and noir ambience from 1947. Or her New Mexican novel Ride the Pink Horse that brings noir to the desert, a heady mix of crime, Mexican and indigenous voices that will haunt you long after reading. And of course her 1963 novel The Expendable Man which looked at the fate of a black man accused of murder in the heyday of the American civil rights movement.
Small wonder if her earlier books haven’t got the same attention, but they’re well worth a read. I’ve written about some before and talked about them at conferences. With Holding and Highsmith, I think Hughes is one of the finest noir voices ever. Pity she didn’t have a drinking problem then die sad and alone or she would be more famous.
That’s sarcasm. Nothing like being a quiet, competent middle-aged woman to get you overlooked.
The So Blue Marble (1940) is very nearly a romp. Her debut novel is full of the Golden Age mystery twists and turns – and snooty ambience – as well as a dash of the espionage stories much relished during the war. There’s the titular McGuffin, the socialite who went to Hollywood but found it all a bore, the absent ex she divorced in a fit of pique and two psychotic identical twins, a long-lost sister and a suspiciously helpful college professor across the hall. It all sounds a bit hectic but Hughes manages to keep the pace fast enough that you don’t question anything as you trundle around Manhattan (okay, maybe stretching credulity to end up on the Berkshires, but that’s always the case). It’s fun, fast and satisfying.
Then there’s Dread Journey (1945): I’m proud to say I have a gorgeous Pocket Book edition of this, the back blurb promising a ‘One-Way Ticket to Death!’ Why is this not a film? It should have been snapped up right away. What it owes to Christie’s more murderous train it trumps with a complete lack of snobbery and racism. Indeed, one of the characters whose eyes we see the story unfold is Pullman porter James Cobbett. Cobbett is astutely aware of how he appears (or doesn’t) to the passengers, noting their racism when it was subtle as well as when it is overt. The Hollywood folk vary from timid to belligerent, with a generous side of desperation thrown in. There’s a louche band leader who hides a lot behind his blood-shot eyes. There’s a reporter who lost his nerve in the war who might just rally back to the fight—possibly too late.
I probably shouldn’t tell you that it’s also shot through with great snippets of poetry and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. I don’t want to put you off! If you don’t want to know, you won’t. They’re not there as they would be in some freshman essay. They’re tied into the characters, their conversations and thoughts. Producer Vivien Spender has spent his life looking for the perfect Clavdia Chaucat, the romantic object of Mann’s novel. He wants to make an epic film of the Bildungsroman and had discarded one ingénue after another when they failed to embody her perfectly.
That’s the problem with ideals. Frail humans seldom live up to them.
But don’t worry. The extras don’t slow down the pace and Hughes keeps the pervasive sense of dread ramped up. You don’t even know who’s going to die, but you know something’s going wrong and it’s all going to go haywire. Good stuff.
Do yourself a favour: read more Dorothy Hughes.