Ride the Pink Horse was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and I have finished it just in time to write about it by the Spin deadline, which is this weekend. There were two reasons why I added this book to my Classics Club list in the first place. One was that I loved Dorothy B Hughes’ The Expendable Man and wanted to read more of her work; the other, I have to admit, was that I liked the title. Otherwise, I would probably never have picked this book up based on the description alone as it didn’t really sound like my usual sort of read. And that would have been a shame, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Ride the Pink Horse was published in 1946 and is set in Santa Fe during Fiesta, a festival commemorating the reconquest of New Mexico by the Spanish. The central character, known only as Sailor, was once ‘confidential secretary’ to Senator Willis Douglass (in reality, his job involved carrying out the corrupt senator’s dirty work for him) until the day the senator’s wife was murdered during what appeared to be an attempted robbery. Only Sailor and the Sen, as he calls him, know what really happened that day and Sailor is determined that if the Sen wants him to keep quiet then he will have to pay him for his silence. Sailor has followed the Sen to the Fiesta, planning to get as much money out of him as possible and then cross the border into Mexico to start a new life – but he hasn’t bargained for the appearance of McIntyre, a Chicago detective who is also on the senator’s trail in search of answers.
The first thing I should tell you about Ride the Pink Horse is that it’s not really a mystery, even though it’s currently being published as part of the Otto Penzler American Mystery Classics series. There’s a detective, but we don’t actually watch him doing any detecting because we see everything solely from Sailor’s perspective and Sailor already knows how the Sen’s wife was murdered. However, there’s still plenty of suspense as we are kept wondering whether Sailor will get what he wants from the Sen or whether he will drop his attempt at blackmail and tell McIntyre what he knows instead. The way in which the novel is written meant I honestly had no idea what would happen and which choices Sailor would make, so I found the ending both surprising and realistic.
The next thing I want to mention is the setting, which is wonderfully atmospheric. Santa Fe is not actually mentioned by name – Sailor, who is from Chicago, just refers to it as a ‘hick town’ – but it can be identified by the descriptions of the Fiesta and the festival traditions such as the burning of Zozobra, the wooden effigy of ‘Old Man Gloom’. Hughes creates an amazing sense of place and a feeling that, for Sailor, Fiesta is not a fun or exciting experience but a stifling, claustrophobic one – a trap from which there is no escape:
The whole town was a trap. He’d been trapped from the moment he stepped off the bus at the dirty station. Trapped by the unknown, by a foreign town and foreign tongues and the ways of alien men. Trapped by the evil these people had burned and the ash had entered into their flesh.
Sailor himself is not a very appealing or pleasant character, but as we learn more about his past – and his unhappy childhood, growing up in poverty with an alcoholic father – it becomes easier to have sympathy for him. One of his least attractive traits is his racism, so be warned that he uses offensive language to describe the Mexican and Native American people he meets during Fiesta. However, as he gradually befriends Pancho, a good-natured merry-go-round owner, and Pila, the young girl who rides the ‘pink horse’ of the title, there are signs that his attitude is beginning to change, as seen here in this conversation with McIntyre:
“…they don’t shove you around. They give you a smile. Even if you don’t talk their language they don’t shove you around. The way we shove them around when they come up to our town.”
“I know,” Mac said. “I’ve thought sort of along that line myself. We’re the strangers and they don’t treat us as strangers. They’re tolerant. Only they’re more than tolerant. Like you say, they’re friendly. They give you a smile not scorn.”
I loved this book and am so pleased it came up for me in the Classics Club Spin! I think The Expendable Man is still my favourite of the two, but I’m looking forward to reading more by Dorothy B Hughes; In a Lonely Place will probably be next.
This is book 25/50 read from my second Classics Club list