Friday, July 27, 2012

Book review: The Expendable Man

Dorothy Hughes is probably best known these days as the author of the novel In A Lonely Place, made into the wonderful - & wonderfully bleak - Humphrey Bogart film. I've not read that novel, but when I saw this new reissue of another of her books, I jumped at the chance to read it. Mid-century American noir is one of my abiding loves, after all.

It's a Friday night in 1963. Young doctor Hugh Denismore is driving from his home in Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. On the highway after stopping for dinner, he sees a young girl, Iris, hitchhiking and decides, somewhat reluctantly, to give her a lift. He ends up, against his will, taking her all the way to Phoenix, even though she makes him nervous and is clearly lying about her reasons for going. Once they get there, he drops her off and hopes to never see her again. 24 hours later, her body is found in a canal. Someone has seen Hugh with her, and so he becomes the focus of the police investigation.

So far, so interesting. But Hughes has bigger things in mind, and there is a revelation partway through the book that puts Hugh's dilemma in context. I've no intention of spoiling that here, of course, but serious credit to whoever wrote the blurb (see here) on this new issue from NYRB Classics for implying that there's something else going on without giving away too much. So I'm not going to say too much more about the plot, other than that Hughes handles both this revelation - which could have come across as a cheat, but doesn't - and her story's conclusion well. The endings to crime novels are fabulously risky, as too many writers (& readers) have found to their peril, as failing on the conclusion can retrospectively ruin an otherwise enjoyable book.

While working within the bounds of a fairly well-covered genre, Hughes also includes some nice sideline touches. Hugh's family plays a small but important part, as he remains desperate for them to not learn that he is the major suspect in a murder investigation. Never the main theme of The Expendable Man, Hugh's family dynamics nonetheless provide both realistic and important context for his troubles. And simultaneously, Hugh meets Ellen, one of his fellow wedding guests, and the two instantly share an attraction. She, not dissuaded by him being a murder suspect, ultimately becomes his greatest ally as he tries to demonstrate his innocence to the police. Ellen is revealed as a strong, thoughtful comrade for Hugh - and somehow Hughes manages to make the unlikely combination of Man Accused Of Murder with Boy Meets Girl work to the advantage of both plots.

Critically, Hugh's character is perfectly drawn. Hughes strikes the right note in her depiction of him both before and after Iris' murder, conveying a realistic-seeming combination of desperation, anger and determination. Seeing him exclusively during a time when he is under pressure and apprehensive, we get a strong sense of what he must be like at all times: thoughtful, resourceful, determined. Her prose is unspectacular but atmospheric, and the third-person focus on Hugh's point of view is also judged well - we know everything he knows, and nothing more. We share his confusion over the motives of others and understand his angers and fears.

It's hard to talk too much more about the themes of The Expendable Man without spoiling the plot. I will say that Hughes' revelation felt like a punch to my gut - suddenly the slightly uneasy quality of the first part of the book made sense, small details all fell into place and the book took quite a different turn from what I had been expecting. It's rare that a novel can do that, can so effectively but quietly shift the ground beneath you, so that what you thought was going on turned out to only part of the story. Rare, and certainly to be applauded when an author does it as wonderfully as Hughes does here.

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