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PREFACE BY DOMINIC POWER
The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes is Persephone book no. 68. Our second thriller, it follows the very successful The Blank Wall (dramatised on BBC R4 autumn 2007). The critic HRF Keating chose The Expendable Man as one of his Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books. ‘A late addition to the thirteen crime stories Dorothy B Hughes wrote with great success in one prolific spell between 1940 and 1952,’ it was, in his view, her best book. But it is far more than a crime novel. Just as her earlier books had engaged with the political issues of the 1940s – the legacy of the Depression, and the struggles against fascism and rascism – so The Expendable Man, published in 1963 during Kennedy’s presidency and set in Arizona, evokes the emerging social, racial and moral tensions of the time.
Right from the start, continues Keating, ‘you are engrossed – Ms Hughes is a fine storyteller – in an account of a young American intern doctor driving his parents’ white Cadillac between Los Angeles, where his hospital is, and Phoenix, Arizona, where his well-off parents live and his sister is about to get married. He stops in a stretch of desert highway and picks up a young, feckless girl wanting a lift.
So far, so fine. Vivid descriptions of the landscape – Ms Hughes began her writing career with a volume of poetry – and a nice study of the girl, a fluent liar and apparently ready at the drop of a scarf to use a little moral blackmail to extend that lift all the way to her destination, also in Phoenix. The young man, one begins to feel, is perhaps a little paranoid about the dangers of giving a girl on her own a lift, and is even a little bit of a prig.’ Yet (Keating concludes) Hugh Densmore, the young man, ‘becomes one of those heroes one does not merely ride along with during the progress of a story, but a person one identifies with, palpitatingly.’
Dorothy B Hughes had begun her career in 1940 when she was 36. In 1944 she went to Hollywood to work as an assistant on Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound. ‘It was my job to sit on the set and see how he worked’; and here she met Ingrid Bergman, one result being that Humphrey Bogart bought the film rights to one of her books. This, the best and most celebrated of the Dorothy B Hughes films, was derived from her dark masterpiece, In a Lonely Place (1947).
When The Expendable Man came out Anthony Boucher in the New York Times called it ‘Mrs Hughes’s finest work to date, of unusual stature both as a suspense story and as a straight novel’ and commended its ‘unrelenting suspense, deft trickery and firmly penetrating treatment of individual and social problems.’ ‘To read The Expendable Man today,’ writes Dominic Power in his Persephone Afterword, ‘is to experience a mature work by a mistress of her craft.’
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