DECEMBER 25, 2018
GRAND MASTER Dorothy B. Hughes’s debut hard-boiled novel, The So Blue Marble (first published in 1940), is being reissued by Penzler Press as the first in a series of American Mystery Classics. This acknowledges her place as a significant contributor to the Golden Age of American crime fiction of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
Along with Hughes, the publisher believes writers like Ellery Queen, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Clayton Rawson, Stuart Palmer, and Craig Rice represent a group of writers who were “the most significant, most inventive, readable, and popular authors of the era.”
For Hughes, that means a range of experience and expertise. She started out as a poet and ended up over 47 years later as a well-respected critic. In 1931, she won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition award with her first book, Dark Certainty. Over her lengthy and varied career, she published 15 crime novels with a sprawling cast of characters — spies, murderers, people from disparate classes living in rural and urban areas.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1904, she settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, having studied at the University of Missouri, Columbia University, and the University of New Mexico. Initially unsuccessful with mystery novels, in 1939 she published Pueblo on the Mesa: The First Fifty Years of the University of New Mexico. By the next year she had cracked the market with The So Blue Marble. Her crisp prose and tough-minded characters engendered high praise and heralded a long, promising career.
It didn’t take long for Hollywood to find her. Three of her best known and most successful mysteries were adapted into popular movies of the 1940s and 1950. The Fallen Sparrow (book, 1942; movie, 1943) starred John Garfield and Maureen O’Hara; Ride the Pink Horse (book, 1946; movie, 1947), directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, a suspenseful thriller with a killer carousel scene, is judged a classic noir; and In a Lonely Place (book, 1947; movie, 1950), directed by Nicholas Ray starred Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame but was watered down and generally unfaithful to the novel.
From 1940 to 1979, Hughes reviewed crime novels for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Albuquerque Tribune and other newspapers. By the early ’50s, Hughes had stopped writing fiction. In 1951, she won an Edgar Award for criticism for her biography, Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. She published one last mystery novel in 1963, The Expendable Man, prescient for its treatment of abortion and race relations. In 1978, 25 years before her death, the Mystery Writers of America named her a Grand Master.
The novel that began it all, The So Blue Marble, is a revelation. It utilizes Hughes’s poetic skills to create an overwhelming atmosphere of fear, terror, and suspense surrounded by the high society environment of 1940 New York City. The novel is supersaturated with crisp dialogue, insurmountably evil characters infused with menace and malice, and a fast-paced plot that explores morality and depravity.
The blue marble is a quintessential MacGuffin. Twenty-four-year-old Griselda Cameron Satterlee, a former Hollywood actress turned seamstress and fashion designer, is walking home alone after going to the theater and is accosted by two identical twin men, Danny and David Montefierrow. Her life takes a turn into the “danger zone” when they demand she give them the “very blue marble” they claim is theirs.
Griselda doesn’t know what they’re talking about and feels no reason to be intimidated. Nothing like this “ever happened to her kind of people; things happened to people living down those cross streets in old red bricks or old brownstones. Things threatened silver and gold dancers” but these “things didn’t happen to her or anyone she knew.”
Hughes’s cutthroat prose instantly captures the disconcerting essence of the brothers. At first glance, they appear to Griselda to be “fashion plates in tails, white tie, [and] opera pumps.” She’s certain they must be “Princeton boys or Yale, with a bit too much.” But after they follow her to the apartment she has borrowed from her ex-husband, Con, she anxiously observes them “remove their tall hats, their white kid gloves, their white silk scarves, black formal overcoats; watching them lay down their sticks with the old-fashioned gold knobs topping them.” Only then is she
really afraid, and for such a fantastic reason. Because one had honey-colored hair, sleek to his head, and one had bat-black hair; one had very blue eyes and one very black; one had the golden tan coloring of blonds and one the olive tan coloring of brunettes. But outside of that they looked exactly alike, unbelievably, frighteningly, alike.
It was as though “an artist had taken the same photograph and colored one dark, one fair.” Those walking sticks hide dangerous weapons.
Fortunately for Griselda, the twins’ demands for the blue marble are interrupted by a neighbor, J. Antwerp Gigland, a professor of Persian Art at Columbia University who lives across the hall. He claims not to know much about Con, Griselda’s ex, but few do. Con supposedly is a news radio guy for NBC but also seems to have an ill-defined job with the government.
The twins are the least of Griselda’s problems. She is contending with her two sisters — 26-year-old Ann, a married mother of two, and 16-year-old Missy, a young girl who seems to trail trouble. Griselda and Ann admit they don’t know Missy well, but they know her well enough to know that she is a spoiled brat, “even if she was their own sister.” What they also don’t know is that Missy is well acquainted with the Montefierrow brothers. She has been living abroad for six or seven years with a mother they define as “likewise a brat” along with an Italian prince stepfather. But now Missy is coming to New York on the Queen Mary, alone, and neither sister wants her to stay with them. Griselda meets the ship after she has been accosted about the marble, and gets a glimpse of the trio at the pier. She is, of course, instantly suspicious.
The first of several murders puts Griselda’s building superintendent’s body in a pool of blood on the floor of Con’s apartment. The brothers, who along with Missy, carry out the corpse in a rug, are patently sociopathic, killers completely without conscience. Their description as obverse sides of the same coin — one dark, the other light — define their temperaments and personalities though neither is especially light.
Emotionless and fearless, they kill without compunction or remorse. The stiletto blades in their walking sticks are used mercilessly, sometimes even on themselves. What separates one from the other is that “Danny wants beauty” and “David wants power.” Griselda acknowledges that the brothers “had done one thing. They even made movie stars seem normal.”
Obsessed with Danny, Missy believes that “[d]anger is sweet.” She wants “violence, hate and the taste of blood.” Something of a masochist, she willingly accepts Danny’s physical abuse. She quickly turns explosive when she smokes some sort of vaporous cigarette that the brothers supply her. The three are meant for each other.
After Griselda finds the marble — hidden by Con — she stashes it in an ingenious spot for most of the duration of the novel. In the meantime, she enjoys the society high life of Art Deco New York — parties at El Morocco and the Stork Club, lunch at the Plaza, stays at the Biltmore and the St. Regis. In an early version of paparazzi stalking celebrities, photographers follow her about the city. Soon enough, she learns that she can believe no one.
She also begins to understand the pathological desires for the marble. Supposedly from a lost civilization, its charmed history — first recorded in the Renaissance — claims that a map inside the gem allegedly leads to a “secret cache wherein are stored the riches of the world […] rubies as big as the moon, cut diamonds and emeralds, moonstones, pearls — like pebbles on the ground. Gold, of course, mercury, platinum.” There’s also a “bloody trail wound about it, years of violence, theft, torture, murder” which follows anyone’s search for it. That trail leads to Griselda’s doorstep. The body count creeps into double digits with a macabre Grand Guignol sequence set in the Berkshires.
The breathless conclusion to The So Blue Marble underscores its choice as the perfect inaugural title for the American Mystery Classic series. In addition to the first six books, upcoming titles include additional work by Ellery Queen, a Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner, a Sherlockian pastiche by Gerald Heard (as H. F. Heard), one by Charlotte Armstrong, and two novels by John Dickson Carr — coming in 2019. Until then, Hughes’s classic is evidence that a good page-turner never dies.
Robert Allen Papinchak’s literary criticism has been published in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Journal of Books, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.