Noir Classics: The Candy Kid – Dorothy B. Hughes by K A Laity

Dorothy Hughes, International Noir, K A Laity

Noir Classics: The Candy Kid – Dorothy B. Hughes

by K. A. Laity

While Hughes’ reputation is assured by the brilliance of In a Lonely Place, Ride the Pink Horse or The Expendable Man, her other novels offer great reads that show her experimenting with characterisations and locations as well as story-telling methods. Her love of the southwest takes centre stage in The Candy Kid, which turns out to be nothing like the gloriously lurid Pocket Book cover by Edward Vebell.

The story begins in the border town El Paso. Even today that town and its twin across the valley, Ciudad Juárez, embody the fraught relationship between the US and Mexico. Hughes’ impression of the tension between the people living and working there and the crime networks that exploit the border crossings seems sedate compared to the cartel violence that led to the image of  Juárez as Murder Central in the early part of this century, when hundreds of women were kidnapped and murdered.

When Jose Aragon, disheveled from driving cattle to El Paso from his New Mexican ranch, first spots Dulcinda Farrar, we suspect here’s the femme fatale. ‘She didn’t look like Texas, not even Dallas. She looked like a turista from the East…she was upper-level stuff’ (2). In Hughes’ books, judging anyone by their appearance is likely to be a mistake. Farrar mistakes Aragon for a cadging Mexican and asks him to pick up a package for her across the border. He agrees despite being equal parts amused and annoyed. Aragon is proud of being Spanish but it rankles a little to be taken for Mexican though he’s aware at that moment he looks the part, hanging around a swank hotel, waiting for his cousin so they can go check in.

It’s meant to be a joke he can spring on the woman as he gets to know her later. He plans to show up after he’s showered and dressed, ready to see her surprise at the handsome man-about-town. But Aragon discovers he’s picked up a shadow. He can’t tell who the guy in the non-descript seersucker suit is (cop? criminal?) but when the guy ends up dead he realises there’s a lot more going on that a joke that’s gone too far.

The mystery straddles the border and then moves to Santa Fe—and Los Alamos. There’s more murder and more questions as a bottle of perfume isn’t at all what it seems. Aragon gets a lot more than he bargained for entangling himself with Farrar and her brother, and a Mexican kid who’s trying to escape the crime kingpin her family sold her to in desperation.

In some ways the 1950 novel looks back to the war-time thrillers Hughes wrote, perhaps as a way of adapting to the growing Red Scare, but I don’t think it really suited her. Also Aragon seems too much built from the outside; we have the facts of him, but he doesn’t feel real in the way that her other creations Dix Steele and Hugh Densmore do. Ride the Pink Horse (1964) works much better with outsider Sailor looking at the cultural collisions of the southwest town. But it’s a fun read with plenty of twists. You can’t go wrong with Hughes. 

Two by Hughes by K. A. Laity

Crime Fiction, Dorothy Hughes, K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

so blue the marble

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.

dread journey