Monday, February 15, 2016

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes is one of the books on the Persephone list, as you may or may not know I am gradually working through all the books they have published and did actually get to visit their shop on Conduit Street in London.  If you just click on my Persephone label you will pull up all related posts.

Again a First Edition published in 1963 from my local library, Dorothy Hughes was an American writer and you would call the style of this book Noir Fiction, with a very American setting and style of writing.  It is a refreshing change to the Persephone Collection.  I also love the dust cover of this book in orange and purple with white and black so very sixties.  It says a Random House novel of suspense.

When you read a book you form pictures of the story in your mind, the characters, what they look like and sometimes it is very bad news to watch a film before you read the book.  That would certainly be very true of this book, because for the first sixty odd pages you have one image in mind and then you read a line and your whole image of this person goes through a 360 degree turn and this is so with this book.  So if you want to read this book and don't want to ruin the surprise, stop right here.

Hugh Densmore a UCLA intern, is traveling from California to Phoenix, Arizona in his mother's white Cadillac, to attend a family wedding, his niece is getting married.  He sees a young teenager at the side of the highway in the twilight of the evening and in all good conscience cannot leave her there, this he does against all his better judgement.  He knows his parents have told him never pick up a hitchhiker it will get you into trouble and other such phrases run though his mind and you begin to think it is beginning to touch on paranoia

"The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach.  He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road;  he'd known it long before the newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind.  Most assuredly he would not pick up anyone in this strange deserted land."

Bonnie Lee Crumb

"She was a teen-ager, she might have been one of the girls he'd seen at the drive-in.  She wasn't pretty;  her face was just a young, thin, petulant face, too much lipstick on the mouth, wisps of her self-bleached hair jutting from beneath the gaudy orange and green scarf covering her head.... She also carried a box handbag of white plastic."

Such a nineteen sixties picture is now set.

"I go ape over Johnny Mathis."

"Personally I prefer Sinatra."  He wondered if that dated him, as his mother was dated with Bing Crosby.

At last the music kept her quiet and he could enjoy the morning ride.  He'd always had a quickening of the heart when he crossed into Arizona and beheld the cactus country.

Hugh had dropped her off before the California/Arizona border and bought her a bus ticket, to Phoenix, it is illegal to transport a minor across a State Line, but there she was waiting for him on the Arizona side having cashed in her ticket, he was again put under an obligation to give her a ride.  He drops the girl off and arrives at his parents house.

"I stayed over in Blythe.  It was late when I got off."  He wouldn't tell her the story, he wouldn't worry her.  "Where's Dad?"

When you watch so many of the old American black and white movies, you know it was a tradition for the bride to get married out of her parents house and it is no different with Clytie, his niece.  I think a very nice tradition which has been lost now.

Clytie had chosen to be married in the ancestral home, to walk down the long front stairway as her mother and her mother's mother had before her.  With Grandfather to marry her.  He was retired now, but once a minister of the Lord, always a minister.

"The schedule?"  Tonight's a barbecue at Uncle Dan's.  The whole tribe of course and members of the wedding party.  Sports clothes."

Gram returned for more dishes.  "Barbecue.  Cooking outdoors like Indians."  She didn't wait for rebuttal but trotted back to her kitchen.

Bonnie as you already know, because you know the direction this is heading in, turns up dead.

"Like Ringle says, we got a tip.  Right after that report went out on the radio.  this guy says a nigger doc driving a big white Cadillac brought Bonne Lee to Phoenix."

This sentence is where you have to rearrange all your mental pictures and all the little cogs of information have to be taken out of their slotted cubbies in your mind and rearranged and slotted back into the correct cubbies of your mind.  It now makes sense why his parents say never pick up a hitchhiker, his grandfather is a minister, he is able to be a doctor, they have escaped the South and have a nice family home with a staircase to walk down for the bride.

This wasn't the deep South.  It was Arizona.

But prejudices are still high even out of the South.

Innocently involved?  No, he couldn't call it innocent.  Rather, it was mindless.  It was neither;  it was a paper chain of circumstances, cut from sympathy and too much imagination.  Imagination, yes - why else should he have thought that unless he picked up the girl she would be in danger?  Another car would have come along, a family car for which she had said she was waiting, or even another man, a white man.

He Dr. Hugh Densmore, product of his heredity and environment, sufficiently intelligent and well adjusted to his mind and body and color and ambition.

His mother is reading the newspaper.

Hugh could have asked her:  May I have a quick look at the front section?  But what answer could he give to her inevitable:  Why , is there some particular story ...?  And she wold glance at the front page in passing, would see the headlines about the dead girl.  Fear would squeeze her, the fear lying ever-dormant beneath the civilized front, beneath the normal life of a Los angeles housewife whose husband's income was in near-five figures, whose children had been born ad bred and coddled in serenity and security and status.

Somehow he knew, knew with dreadful clarity, that this man had full intent to make Hugh the killer.

Because the wedding was in the home, the guest list was small - the family and a few old friends.  But the reception which followed seemed to include the entire community.  there was no segregation with Clytie's university friends and John's Air Force crowd on hand.  

With all the different friends flying in for the wedding Hugh meets Ellen.

He offered Ellen a cigarette, took one himself, and lighted them.

A scene with a man and a woman smoking together seems dated in this time, but maybe not.

"You need a lawyer."

"No." He rejected it utterly, violently.  "What could a lawyer do?  I haven't been accused of anything. I haven't done anything."  He tried to make her see it.  "Having a lawyer would make me look guilty.  And I'm not."

She smiled wryly.  "Most lawyers prefer an innocent client."  He tried to laugh.  "the Judge's daughter"

The night was sharp with cold at this hour, the stars were broken glass patched against the dark sky.

I do like the above quote.

She had thought it out with care;  she must have been thinking of little else all day.  "A young man, not over forty, but top drawer in his profession;  liberal, but not too liberal, no Civil Liberties lawyer, they're suspect from the beginning because they show up in any case involving minorities.

Trying to check Ellen into the same motel as Hugh.

It was a lie and they all knew it was a lie, but there was no rancor among them.  This clerk couldn't cancel the system;  her genuine friendliness was her contribution toward eroding it.  Five years ago she wouldn't have had a vacant unit;  ten year ago she would have said, "We don't take Negroes,"  if any had had the courage or spunk to inquire.

Skye Houston pronounce  Howston, the lawyer.

His close-cropped hair was sun-bleached to pale lemon;  he was tanned far darker than Ellen, almost as dark as Hugh.

There was no excuse he could give for postponing food; ..."There's a bakery cafeteria a couple of blocks from here.  Not elegant but friendly and the food used to be good will that do?"

"It sounds just right."  She was a different girl since Houston.

The cold of the cafeteria enveloped them like a snowfall.

This so takes me back to when I first stepped foot in the USA in the seventies and what a shock air conditioning was.  Coming from a country where you did not need it and it did not exist.  How one always had to carry a cardigan even in the hottest of days, just for the sake of AC.

He'd have to ask Houston for help.  They'd be afraid not to answer Houston's questions.  It rankled that he could not bring the same force to bear, that he had to forgo his own social position and become a caricature to ask a simple question.  And receive no answer.

"He said lightly, "I hear we have some fine courses in foreign diplomacy.  Maybe you'll decide to transfer."

"Okay, Madam Ambassador."

She smiled at him.  "I didn't choose the field because I'm a feminist."  Thoughtfully, she continued, "We've traveled abroad quite a bit.  Because of my father's various assignments.  I believe there's a definite need for what I call dark diplomats.

This book is far more than Fiction Noir, it addresses the racial prejudices of the era and makes you think about what has changed and what has not.


1 comment:

  1. Those were dangerous times for young black men in America. Makes me really wonder what the outcome was. Sounds like a good read. I guess I could see if my local library could order it for me!


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