In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

This is the book that was chosen for me to read in the recent Classics Club Spin – a result I was very pleased with, having loved two other novels by Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man and Ride the Pink Horse (two of my books of the year in 2020 and 2021 respectively).

Originally published in 1947, In a Lonely Place is set in Los Angeles just after World War II. Dix Steele, who had served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, is staying in an apartment belonging to an old acquaintance, Mel Terriss, who has gone to Rio for a while. Like many young men who have returned from the war, Dix has been left damaged by his experiences and is taking advantage of the peace and quiet to finish writing his new crime novel. At least, that’s what he tells people. It is quickly made obvious to the reader that the writing is a cover for something else and that Dix is actually spending his time doing something very different.

Deciding to contact a wartime friend, Brub Nicolai, who also lives in LA, Dix is surprised to learn that Brub is now working as a police detective. Brub is delighted to renew their friendship, introducing Dix to his wife, Sylvia, and telling him about the case he is investigating – a series of stranglings that have been taking place across the city. Dix is envious of Brub’s close relationship with Sylvia, which serves as a constant reminder of his own sense of loneliness and isolation. When he meets Laurel Gray, a beautiful young actress who lives in his apartment building, it seems that he has a chance to form a new relationship of his own…if Laurel can avoid becoming the strangler’s next victim.

I had high hopes for this novel and it certainly didn’t disappoint! I’ve actually found it quite a difficult book to write about because I’m not sure what would be considered a spoiler and what wouldn’t. Having said that, there’s not really a lot of mystery involved; we know from very early in the book who the murderer is – the suspense is in waiting to find out how, if and when they will get caught. However, there are still a few surprises and some revelations that don’t come until later in the story. All three of the books I’ve read by Hughes have been so much than just straightforward crime novels; she takes us right inside the minds of her characters and although they may be damaged, unhappy and not the most pleasant of people, she makes them feel believable and real, if not exactly sympathetic!

This book is wonderfully atmospheric – dark and tense and with the reader, like Dix, wondering who can be trusted and who knows more than they’re admitting to. It’s another great read and I’ll look forward to reading more by Dorothy B. Hughes.

This is book 28/50 read from my second Classics Club list

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B Hughes

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

Classics Club Spin #28: The result

The result of the latest Classics Club Spin has been revealed today.

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced by the Classics Club represents the book I have to read before 12th December. The number that has been selected is…

12

And this means the book I need to read is…

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B Hughes

It’s carnival time in Santa Fe, and three out-of-town visitors are drawn together in the heat, the smells and the colour of the festival…

Sailor, a hood from Chicago, is there to confront his boss, Sen, a crooked politician, to try to get money for what he knows about the murder of Sen’s wife, killed supposedly during a robbery gone wrong.

Following them both is Mac, a man from the same side of the tracks as Sailor, but who has made very different choices. He’s a cop now, and wants Sailor to testify against Sen and put him away.

The three strangers collide, retreat and advance through the streets of New Mexico, moving ever closer to a charged and unexpected outcome…

~

I’m happy with this result! It’s not a book I would normally have chosen to read based on the description, but The Expendable Man was one of my favourite books read last year and I’ve been looking forward to reading more by Dorothy B Hughes. It’s also one of the shorter books on my list so I should easily be able to finish it by the deadline.

Did you take part in the spin? Are you pleased with your result?

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes

This weekend Jessie of Dwell in Possibility has been hosting another Mini Persephone Readathon and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read The Expendable Man, one of the thrillers published by Persephone and a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. It turned out to be a great choice.

Published in 1963, the novel opens with a young doctor, Hugh Densmore, driving from Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. On the way, he spots a teenage girl standing alone at the side of the road. Hugh doesn’t usually stop for hitchhikers but this time he finds himself slowing down…

He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.

Hugh quickly begins to regret this impulsive act of kindness. The girl is rude, ungrateful and, when he questions her about who she is and where she is going, it is clear that she is telling lies. When they arrive in Phoenix, Hugh leaves his hitchhiker at a bus station and doesn’t expect to see her again, but that night the girl tracks him down at his hotel, setting in motion a series of events that could ruin the life and career he has built up so carefully for himself.

There’s really not much more I can say about the plot or the characters. If you think you might want to read this book, it’s best that you know as little as possible before you begin. And I do highly recommend reading it! I was completely gripped from beginning to end; when I first picked it up on Friday and started reading, I didn’t expect to actually finish it before the Readathon was over, but as it happened that wasn’t a problem at all. I couldn’t bear to put the book down until I knew what was going to happen to Hugh.

There’s an element of mystery-solving to the novel, but The Expendable Man is much more than a straightforward crime story. A few chapters into the book, there’s a twist – or maybe revelation is a better word to use – that changed the way I felt about what I had read so far and showed me that I had made an unfair assumption without even being aware that I had made it. It was so cleverly done and provided answers to some of the things I’d been wondering about as I read those earlier chapters.

I also loved the author’s beautifully written descriptions of the landscape, particularly near the beginning when Hugh is driving into Arizona. This is the first book I’ve read by Dorothy B Hughes and I was very impressed with every aspect of it! I would like to read more of her books, so if there’s one you would recommend please let me know.