I am writing this review/essay the week the Trayvon Martin verdict was handed down and President Obama observed that 35 years ago, he could have been Trayvon. This book was written in 1963, but it could have been written today. People are still wary of young black men, whether they are in black hoodies or, as Hugh Denismore is, a respectable young doctor from a wealthy and well-educated family, finishing a medical internship at a university hospital in Los Angeles.
This novel also addresses the issue of abortion. Written ten years before Roe v. Wade, Hughes does not oppose, at least directly, abortion; the characters all consider the operation immoral, appalling, and sordid. The marshal who observes, as Doc Jopher is arrested: “… there’ll be another Jopher. And another telephone number. And another old woman. Another and another and another. There’ll always be abortionists just as there’ll always be prostitutes and pimps and pushers. When man wants an evil, he’ll always find someone evil to supply him. (243)”
The fact that to get an abortion Iris had to go to an alcoholic, unlicensed doctor and have the procedure on the floor with unsterilized instruments doesn’t seem to strike anyone as wrong – that Iris should be able to go to a clean hospital for an illegal abortion, not risking her life or reputation just isn’t an option. I hope that those living in states restricting woman’s access to a legal abortion, such as I here in Texas, realize that we may end on up those days again. With one or two clinics open in a state and all the other limitations in place, women will have to return to those bad old days.
So much for my editorializing. I won’t apologize or ask you to ignore it if it offends you. If it offends you, you should read it and think about the point I am trying to make.
You may have heard of Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Jim Thompson if you are at all familiar with mid-century noir. Dorothy B. Hughes ranks with these writers as a master of this genre. With its reissue of The Expendable Man, New York Review Books has given readers the opportunity to rediscover the extraordinary Dorothy B. Hughes. In books like In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse she exposed a seething discontent underneath the veneer of twentieth-century prosperity. With The Expendable Man, her last work of fiction, Hughes reverses the conventions of the wrong-man narrative to deliver a story that engages readers even as it implicates them in the greatest of all American crimes.
Dorothy Hughes’s writing, like the best noir writing, is simultaneously rich and spare, with sumptuous descriptions summoned by irregular sentences and familiar language. “Across the tracks there was a different world,” begins the novel:
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.
Raymond Chandler famously wrote that hardboiled fiction must be written in the “speech of common men,” yet also wrote astoundingly poetic descriptions of Los Angeles. Hughes, like Chandler, began her literary career as a poet, and this tendency is apparent in her writing.
Ms. Hughes wrote 14 mystery novels, most of them set in the Southwest and involving an upper-class hero caught up in evil intrigue. Her best-known works include The Cross-Eyed Bear (1940), Ride the Pink Horse (1946), The Expendable Man (1964) and In a Lonely Place (1947), which was made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart.
After working as a reporter and women’s editor in the 1920’s, she began reviewing crime fiction for The Albuquerque Tribune, The Los Angeles News, The Los Angeles Mirror and The New York Herald Tribune
In 1931, she published an award-winning book of poetry, Dark Certainty. She wrote a history of the University of New Mexico in the late ’30s, and then turned to writing fiction. In 1940, her first two novels, The Cross-Eyed Bear and The So Blue Marble, were published. Her 1942 novel The Fallen Sparrow was Hughes’s breakthrough and her introduction to Hollywood. The story rights were bought by RKO which released a movie based on the novel in 1943, starring John Garfield as the survivor of a Spanish prisoner-of-war camp, faced with new Nazi enemies in the United States. This movie was a box-office success and one of the more serious topical thrillers about World War II, and it helped transform the book into Hughes’s best-known work. Her 1946 novel, Ride the Pink Horse was turned into a brilliant film by director and star Robert Montgomery the following year. The film version of her 1947 novel In a Lonely Place starred Humphrey Bogart and was released in 1950.
Hughes’s work decreased as she started a family and found motherhood encroaching on her time and ability to write, but she always wrote literary criticism — for 39 years she was a literary critic specializing in mysteries for the Albuquerque Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Herald Tribune. In 1950, she received her first Edgar Allen Poe Award for her work as a critic. Hughes’s fiction became well-respected among readers for its vivid language, linked to a tough yet powerful style of writing. Her books usually featured lone upper-class heroes operating on their own, independent of the powers that be and in quest for justice. Hughes was writing far ahead of what Hollywood was prepared to deal with even in the ’60s.
In 1964, Ride the Pink Horse was adapted into a new movie, The Hanged Man. This marked the end of her direct influence on Hollywood. Her work, however, was a major influence on other mystery writers of the postwar era, and the movies they inspired remain among the most respected of their particular libraries. She was especially influential on the next two generations of female mystery writers. In 1978, Hughes was dubbed a “grand master” by the Mystery Writers of America. She returned to non-fiction writing late in life and received her second Edgar Award for her book Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. Hughes died in 1993 at the age of 88. Her most popular books regularly went into reprint throughout the later decades of her life.
In his Afterword to this new edition, Walter Mosley asks, but does not answer, why Hughes has not been as celebrated as her peers, like Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy. “Bringing her back is no act of nostalgia,” he writes. “It is a gateway through which we might access her particular view of that road between our glittering versions of American life and the darker reality that waits at the end of the ride.”
In The Expendable Man, Hugh Denismore is driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix to attend a family wedding. His life is going great; he would seem to have the world at his feet. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?
Hughes holds back a few facts for several chapters. She provides hints but doesn’t directly state the primary reason for Hugh’s distress and anxiety until his first interview with the police – Hugh is black, not white, unlike many noir heroes. It becomes clear that Hugh’s discomfort with the noisy teenagers is due to the racist epithets they yell at him as their car drives by, and that his tense interactions with various service personnel during his trip have a very simple explanation. Hugh’s overwhelming terror at hearing of Iris Croom’s death is entirely rational. The local detectives’ overt racism only heightens his fear.
Hugh feels he cannot tell his family about his distress for fear of ruining the wedding festivities, but he luckily finds his allies in Ellen Hamilton, his niece’s roommate and the daughter of a D.C. judge; Skye Houston, a white lawyer preparing to run for city office; and Hugh’s brother-in-law Edward, a successful and well-respected doctor in Phoenix. Against them are the detectives Ringle and Venner, whose determination to prove Hugh’s guilt overrides any opposing evidence; an anonymous caller intent on viciously harassing Hugh; and Iris Croom’s mysterious Phoenix boyfriend, who may or may not be married but who certainly arranged for her abortion.
In Walter Mosley’s Afterword, he discusses the role race plays in this novel. To fail to inject politics into any discussion of noir is both a dishonest proposition and a losing one. The Expendable Man, which makes use of noir’s generic conventions of corruption, resonates only too well today. With the election of President Obama, we were supposed to be in a “post-racial era.” This week’s events have shown that we are far from being there.
Hugh Denismore experiences a combination of confusion and resignation when confronted with overt racism – confusion because he is used to a near-“invisible” blackness in L.A., resignation because he remembers encountering the same hatred in his childhood. Hughes, however, neatly upends her own inversion of the classic noir trope of good and evil drawn along racial lines: race, in The Expendable Man, is not an indicator of good or evil. In fact, neither is racism, oddly enough, although the “bad” characters are easily identifiable by their overt and ugly bigotry. Hughes has managed a precise illustration of racism as a system and the ways that people can work to undermine the system even as they are implicated in it. When Ellen Hamilton checks into the motel, the desk clerk states in a transparent lie that the only room available is the one Hugh has just vacated. Yet Hugh’s belief in this moment is not that the clerk is participating in racism, but that her friendliness and willingness to help Hugh and Ellen mean she is working with them to undermine the system that prevents her from giving them another room.
Like many crime writers, Hughes is interested in appearances: the look of guilt and innocence. His adversaries, based on circumstantial evidence and their suspicions of Denismore’s race, don’t believe in Denismore’s innocence, and on its own, Denismore’s innocence isn’t all that interesting, anyway. It has no shape or size. In this novel, any one character’s psychological depth is arid compared to the interactions between them, how they test and threaten each other.
Difference is defined by oppositions of power, after all – black, white; accuser, accused. Noir provides a language and a rhythm for such differences. The contrasts of heat and coolness, light and shadow, create the setting for stagey confrontations – accusations, interrogations, discoveries, confessions – that move the plot forward.
Morality, too, is a matter of contrasts. Blackness in “The Expendable Man” occupies a position of ethical superiority. Denismore is so peaceable, or passive, that he isn’t even threatened by the appearance of Bonnie Lee’s father, who rages against him. It’s not only white racism that Denismore is against; insistently, it’s white abortion. The classic American fear that a black man would sleep with a white woman is here transformed into the fear that a black man would “kill” a white woman’s baby. Abortion functions as a sex crime without the sex. Denismore’s doctor brother-in-law, Edward, explains that all medical men are approached, from time to time, by someone wanting the service. “One thing I’ll say, Hugh, and it’s God’s truth. I’ve never been approached by any of our people. Only the ofays… Somehow they seem to think that a Negro doctor lacks morality.”
Denismore’s search for the abortionist—a fallen doctor for a fallen woman – shapes much of the plot and ratchets up the danger and risk he faces. He finally finds Doc Jopher, a white boozehound who lost his medical license for operating while under the influence, and who lives in a shack with his booze and his hound, Duke.
The real villain in this novel – the absolute limit of horror that blacks and whites together must combat, though the battle will never end – is the death of the unborn. In the tightly calibrated world Hughes has created, black morality can only appear in contrast to something that readers, and the author, could paint as unquestionably immoral. That is, Hughes was able to explore race and difference because she put “evil” somewhere else. For noir, everything in the world is in some way tainted. Only the unborn can be blameless and incorruptible. It’s the perfect symbol for her moral economy.
It bears noting that illegal abortion, of course, was evil, if not on the terms The Expendable Man understands it. It killed thousands of women. It was expensive and humiliating. There was no anesthetic. And terminating an unwanted pregnancy was much more dangerous for poor women and women of color, who lacked access to providers. According to one report from the Guttmacher Institute, in New York City in the early sixties, abortion was responsible for twenty-five per cent of childbirth-related deaths for white women; for non-white and Puerto Rican women, it was fifty per cent.
The Expendable Man does not suggest that racism can be combatted by action or waited out in time; it is a disease, and it must be quarantined, the scene fled. The last lines find Denismore back in the car with a woman, the right woman this time. He and Ellen, backs to the desert, are driving towards their future. It awaits them in Los Angeles, away from Phoenix.
The beauty of the Southwestern American desert is a deceptive cover for the violence — born of fear and hatred — that lies beneath it in a tawdry, seedy underbelly familiar to noir. There are no satisfying solutions in The Expendable Man, and the solutions that do come seem almost pat and almost saccharine; however, though the solution may not be satisfying, the novel as a whole certainly is. Noir does not present a puzzle to be solved. We can expect no easy answers, because the answer is not the point. Hugh Denismore’s search for Iris Croom’s true killer is not prompted by a desire to apprehend the villain, or even to find the truth. His search is prompted by the apparently selfish desire to save his reputation. Yet Hugh Denismore is not a selfish man; he is, by any reckoning, a good man, who loves his family and wishes to save them from the grief of hearing him branded an abortionist and murderer. His is not the superhuman intellect of Holmes or Poirot; Hugh Denismore is only human. That, in fact, is the truth that hides within noir: it is the stories of the only human, tawdry and stained and yet somehow golden for all of that.
As Hugh and Ellen set out to find Iris’s killer, the threat of disappearance stalks Hugh. He could end up in jail or murdered, the fact of his race denying him any margin of protection. Lest the novel’s allusive title be lost on anyone, Ellen spells it out: “In our country, more often than not, we are what Ellison so well describes as invisible.” The Expendable Man dramatizes the relation between existential invisibility and actual expendability. It was Hughes’s virtue to discern, far more clearly than Harper Lee (that other white woman with a ’60s novel about a black man’s innocence and an unjust society’s guilt), the systemic quality of American racism. Hughes’s virtue is also a virtue of her genre. In the noir novel, after all, corruption and abuse are not individual moral failings. They are etched in society’s bones.