The Expendable Manby: Dorothy B. Hughes
ONE CAN READ TOO much into an author's dedication, but the one Dorothy B. Hughes used for her 1942 novel The Fallen Sparrow is as telling in what it doesn't say as it is in what it does:
For Eric Ambler
2nd Lieutenant, Royal Artillery
somewhere in England
because he has no book this year.
At the time, Ambler was a commercially successful espionage novelist, just three years removed from his masterpiece, A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939), and at the tail end of a remarkable run of classics such as Background to Danger (1937), Epitaph for a Spy, and Cause for Alarm (both 1938). Along with Graham Greene, he forever altered the landscape of spy fiction. His prose was sharp and fine-boned, and his protagonists were believably drawn ordinary people of the middle class who found themselves in increasingly dangerous predicaments, their personal dramas playing out against the backdrop of much larger wars and ills.
For someone like Hughes, who was born and bred in Missouri, pursued an education in journalism in her home state and in New York, and first knew herself to be a writer at the age of six, Ambler's work was both a revelation and an instruction manual. Ambler’s novels taught Hughes to pace her story without great haste, while retaining a sense of urgency. They taught her to render her setting, largely midtown Manhattan, with elegance — an elegance which extended to the people whose secrets and wants turned the city into a realm of shadows, with danger thrumming in the background.
But in dedicating her fourth novel — one of the first turning points in her literary career — to Ambler, she also foreshadowed another parallel between them. His early years of success were fading into a long, largely fallow period; he wouldn't write a novel under his own name for 12 years. Ambler returned, triumphantly, with Judgment on Deltchev in 1952 — the year Hughes began her own self-imposed 11-year exile from crime fiction. She'd produce one last brilliant hurrah in 1963 — The Expendable Man, recently reissued by NYRB Classics — and would then said goodbye to fiction forever.
Dorothy B. Hughes — the B stands for Belle, and Hughes replaced her maiden name, Flanagan, when she married Lewis Hughes in 1932 — is my favorite crime writer. Full stop. I arrived at this conclusion in 2004 with my first reading of In a Lonely Place, her standout post-World War II novel, and have never strayed from it over the course of dozens of rereads. That first read remains an indelible memory, since it came at a time when I was in the midst of an incremental transition from passionate crime fiction fan to professional writer. At 25, I knew what I liked and whose prose spoke to me. I was running a now-defunct blog on the genre, which was something of a water cooler for the community, and was reviewing books for a periodical or two.
But In a Lonely Place, which had then been re-released by The Feminist Press, blasted my mind open to new ways of reading. I wasn't only enjoying the story and getting creeped out by the wholly unreliable narrator, Dix Steele, but marveling at the way Hughes let readers in on what was really happening while keeping Dix in the dark about his own nefarious motivations. She was describing the psyche and actions of a seri...read more