The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes

June 9, 2021 at 2:19 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Published in 1963, this is a strange, most intriguing little book. The time is the early 1960s. The place is the Desert Southwest, more specifically the border between California and Arizona. Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, is traveling this route home to his family in Phoenix. The occasion is the upcoming wedding of his niece.

When he sees a young girl by the side of the road, he stops for her. She is desperate  for a ride to Phoenix. Feeling that her situation is deeply unsafe, he agrees to let her come with him.

The heavy hand of fate is poised above this irrevocable  act…

The background to this story consists of escalating social and political turmoil of the 1960s. Hughes describes this strife as the eyewitness that she was. Her depiction of the desperation of a pregnant teenager is especially vivid. It occurred to me while reading this compelling novel  that I didn’t recall ever reading about this explosive issue in a work of fiction actually written during that time.

In these pages you will find a word that I for one had never before encountered: ‘aborticide.’

And yet…there is grace in Hughes’s writing, especially when she is describing the desert landscape:

This was the desert as it should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaro standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and the brushy mesquite. Because there had  been some winter rain, the desert was in bloom.The saguaro wore creamy crowns on their tall heads, the ocotillo spikes were tipped with vermilion, and the brush bloomed yellow  as forsythia.

No one who has seen the bleak desert terrain suddenly burst into wild color will ever forget the sight.

Dorothy B. Hughes’s best known work of fiction is probably In a Lonely Place. This is no doubt because of the fact that it was made into a great film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

I tried to read that book but couldn’t – I don’t remember why. But The Expendable Man was an entirely different story. I couldn’t put it down. There are many twists and turns in this story; possibly the most surprising one concerns Hugh himself. However, some things about him remain constant throughout: his courage, and his integrity.

This was Hughes’s final work of fiction.

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