Expendable and essential

24th May 2016

The best book that I read on holiday recently was a novel first published in 1963. My overwhelming feeling on finishing The Expendable Man was that both it and its author, Dorothy B. Hughes, deserve to be far better-known than, at least in Britain, they are. In a way, The Expendable Man is a noir novel, and certainly there’s a murder and a mystery and a manhunt. But the book is also a remarkable study of social attitudes in America, an exploration of race and of sex and of class in the early ’60s. This was the moment when John F Kennedy’s progressive administration had begun to make an impact but when ingrained prejudices were still powerful – as they remain today in many parts of the United States. Which is part of why The Expendable Man feels so contemporary.

The book begins with a young doctor driving a white Cadillac through the desert towards the city of Phoenix, Arizona. Sensing that his kindness will only bring him trouble, he pulls over to pick up a teenage girl. It’s hard to give more of a sense of the plot without spoiling Hughes’ audacious narrative switch towards the end of the second chapter. Suffice it to say that it’s super-smart and, for a reader who thinks of himself as enlightened, not a little shocking.

I came to The Expendable Man after reading Dorothy Hughes’ earlier crime classic In a Lonely Place in the recently published Library of America collection Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 1950s. This too is a great group of all-but forgotten noirs which is accompanied an excellent online resource with details of the authors and the original contexts of publication. From this, I learned that Hughes worked as a journalist in the 1920s and ’30s, was a recognised poet and published her first novel in 1940.

Sarah Weiman, editor of the Library of America set, wrote an admiring tribute to Hughes, calling her ‘the world’s finest female noir writer’, for LA Review of Books in 2012 (but beware of spoilers towards the end). A hard-edged study of a serial killer, written from inside the mind of the perpetrator, Hughes’ In a Lonely Place appeared in 1947 and like other novels by her was later adapted (and softened) by Hollywood. Nicholas Ray’s classic noir stars Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame:

The Expendable Man was published over a decade later and was Hughes’ last novel. There was a reissue in 2012 in the States and the current British edition is published by the excellent Persephone Books. I am a huge fan of Persephone who reprint ‘neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.’ They produce wonderfully crafted paperbacks with a wholly admirable attention to design, and each of their 100-plus volumes is a joy to hold and to read. Which makes me regret that I opted for their ebook of The Expendable Man; while convenient on holiday, this mostly served as a reminder of why I like their physical volumes so much.

In whatever way you consume it, The Expendable Man is both a compelling read and, for me at least, an insufficiently-recognised classic that is my best recommendation for this summer’s beach bag. On closing it I wondered why, as far as I know, it had never been snapped up like In a Lonely Place and made into a film. But then I recognised that story-telling twist I mentioned would make it hard to translate to the screen while retaining the force that the tale has on the page. That said, and again if you don’t mind spoilers, Christine Smallwood wrote a thoughtful review for The New Yorker in 2012. I’d say read the book first, however, and then also look out Charles Taylor’s 2012 essay for The Nation, Uninvisible: On Dorothy B. Hughes.

Image: President Kennedy meeting civil rights leaders during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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