Summer Reading Recap: Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man

Dorothy B. Hughes

I’m not often very good at making a to-read list and then sticking to it. More often than not, I go off course when one of my to-reads turns out to just not be what I’m in the mood for, or I run across an exciting and unexpected title and forgo things that have been gathering dust on my shelf in order to satisfy spontaneous curiosity. This is neither good or bad, as far as I’m concerned, it just tends to be how I read. But this summer, I actually made a to-read list (here), and I’ve done a decent job of  keeping up with it. Of the five books I listed, I’ve read two so far, starting with Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable ManMy brief and informal recap is below, and if you’re at all interested in Hughes’ work, you may also enjoy the following pieces on her work:

The Sultana of Subversion: Three Hardboiled Novels by Dorothy B. Hughes,” by Jenny McPhee, bookslut, June 2012.

An Unsung Heroine,” by Sarah Weinman, Bookslut, February 2004.

Fever Pitch,” by Ariel Swartley, Los Angeles Magazine, May 2004.

Dorothy B. Hughes, A Mystery Writer and Historian, 88,” New York Times Obit from 1993, written by William Grimes.

***

I was primarily interested in Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man because it is a crime novel (written by a woman) set in Arizona and from the cover description, it sounded like the main character was in some way dubious or not what he seemed–I love those unreliable narrators. About 60 pages into the book, however, my expectations were completely turned on their head in one of the cleverest narrative twists I’ve read in some time.

I’m not often troubled by spoilers, but I won’t ruin this for anyone by going into the aforementioned twist in detail. Suffice to say that Hughes’ revelation is partially a revelation because it shouldn’t be one at all, and yet the dropping of one small fact changes everything you’ve read up to that point and contextualizes the rest of the novel in a far more meaningful way than your average ‘wrong-man’ scenario. She’s a gifted writer–her prose is spare but really descriptive when it needs to be, and she puts a great deal of empathy into her characterizations, which I think is pivotal in a good crime novel. Through her characters in The Expandable Man Hughes not only effectively conveys a sort of looming paranoia and tension–and the agonizing feeling that the person one most needs to escape is, perhaps, oneself–but also ably places both herself and her readers in the same frame of mind, which makes for a rather jittery reading experience. (In a good way, of course.)

I’ll also say that this is one of the best evocations I’ve read of Arizona since Betsy Thornton’s High Lonesome Road (makes sense–Hughes lived in New Mexico), and it’s particularly touching to read her descriptions of Phoenix on the verge of becoming the sprawling, overdeveloped, contentiously urban city that it is today. I loathe Phoenix as it is now–as it’s been since my childhood–and in some ways, that’s just the Tucsonan pride coming out. But in the 60s, when the book is set, Hughes describes a city which is not yet large enough that one can easily hide there, a city which is only just starting to raze the natural landscape for suburban housing developments and which still lays claim to meandering country roads winding next to canals shaded by mesquite trees.

I wasn’t totally sold on the way the plot wrapped up–there’s some last minute amateur sleuthing that is a little contrived–but this is beside the point. I will certainly be tracking down more of Hughes’ books soon–maybe next In a Lonely Place, which was turned into a movie with Humphrey Bogart.

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