On the World’s Finest Female Noir Writer, Dorothy B. Hughes

By Sarah WeinmanAugust 12, 2012

    On the World’s Finest Female Noir Writer, Dorothy B. Hughes

    In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. The Feminist Press at CUNY. 250 pages.The Davidian Report by Dorothy B. Hughes. Bantam Books. 0The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes. NYRB Classics. 264 pages.

    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 (1947), 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 serial killer years before the term existed. She depicted the crushing disappointment a war hero feels after coming home to a chorus of crickets, as well as the expectation to pick up where he’d left off — when there’s nothing to pick up. Most marvelously, Hughes turned the whole story on its head by creating strong female characters — from Dix's neighbor and purported love interest, Laurel Gray, to Sylvia, the wife of his best friend (and investigating police detective) Brub Nicolai — and putting moral victory in their hands, through their own actions. This was a feminist book (even if Hughes reportedly poo-poohed the term), written 65 years ago, but the effect was so subtle as to fool people into thinking it was just another crime novel, even an exemplary one.

    In the years since my first encounter with In a Lonely Place (also the source material for the fine, but very different, 1950 movie starring Humphrey Bogart as Dix, recast as bona-fide hero accused of crimes he never committed, and the luscious Gloria Grahame as Laurel) I've made my way through the bulk of Hughes's crime fiction oeuvre, and found a few welcome surprises along the way. Hughes was that rare bird who couldn't write a turkey, and while they couldn't all be stellar, even the lesser efforts offered something of substance for reader and writer alike. She built worlds — especially in the early New York novels and the later ones set around Los Angeles's twisting streets and in New Mexico's wide-open spaces — that were vivid with bright colors, glittering baubles, and big dreams, yet never felt cartoonish. Her main characters stood outside ruling classes and governments, took part in clandestine operations trying to unseat evil, and overcame damaged pasts and terror-filled presents with resilience and toughness that surprised even them. Hughes, in other words, plumbed three-dimensional depths, no matter the plot device or twist.

    Consider Lizanne Steffasson, the heroine of her second novel, The Cross-Eyed Bear (1940), who’ll soon find herself in the thick of a complicated mystery involving a rich Finnish family named Viljaas, three brothers with equal claim upon their father's estate, and a killer who doesn't want to share the spoils. We'll find out soon enough that she's keeping plenty of secrets of her own, and that her narrative can't be entirely trusted. But before all that, she sits in a boardinghouse near Columbia University (where Hughes herself did graduate work in the 1920s), wondering about her future:

    She hadn't paid last week’s rent. Seven dollars must go for that; maybe she could eat on five this week, and then there was subway fare. One more of these seventeen dollars and no more. There wouldn't be even this ugly room to which to return. She wondered what happened to girls in Manhattan who had no room, no money, no job. It was all right to read about sleeping on a bench in Central Park; it didn't sound so dreadful, but reality was different stuff. What would she do with her trunk if she moved to a park bench? And what would she eat?

    The cards Lizanne has been dealt are so removed from the mundane that she's understandably afraid to play them, spending weeks staring at the ad for a “beautiful girl” in the paper (she feels she doesn't quite rate, with her red hair and average figure). But she knows she must play, if she is to solve the mystery at the deepest core of her identity — a mystery that ties in with the Viljaas clan, and that will reveal what she's really made of.

    Lizanne is tougher than Griselda Satterlee, the protagonist of Hughes’s fiction debut, The So Blue Marble, which had been published several months earlier. (Hughes had previously published a book of poetry, Dark Certainty, in 1931, as well as a non-fiction chronicle of her alma mater the University of New Mexico in 1939.) Griselda is a fashion designer and near-divorcee, looking to make the break with her husband Con as clean as possible. But — and I'm still agog that Hughes pulled this off at the beginning of her career — her plans are upended by the arrival of a couple of gorgeous twin psychopaths, one brother blue-eyed and fair, the other with dark hair and eyes. They chance upon Griselda in the street, steer her home under gentle threat, and calmly assert their desire for a blue marble which belongs to them, and only them — a bauble she denies knowledge of, but must keep hidden (thanks to the aforementioned ex, a far-flung correspondent and, in aping Ambler, one of those clandestine agents Hughes loved to write about).

    The So Blue Marble was, at publication, 25,000 words less than Hughes's original manuscript, thanks to an editor who demanded cuts. The pared-down result helped Hughes heighten the suspense, but also produced a story that comes off a little manic, as the author seemed determined to sketch out juicy supporting players even if she couldn’t give them room enough to breathe. The same problem affects The Bamboo Blonde (1941), which brought back Griselda and Con — now husband and wife again — on vacation in Mexico, caught up in the murder of a blonde acquaintance, of whom Griselda is irrationally jealous for spending lots of time with her husband. It's a little disappointing that a capable career woman has been reduced to a simpering wife, but Hughes returned to form, and then some, with The Fallen Sparrow.


    Sparrow introduces Hughes’s first male protagonist, although her previous three novels share a common male investigating detective, Mitch Tobin, who manages to be taciturn and faintly amused at everything whirling around him. In Sparrow, Tobin is all business, but he’s also all empathy, directed towards the narrator, Kit. Like Lizanne Steffasson, Kit has a murder to avenge, in this case that of his best friend and army buddy, Louie, whose fall out of a high-story window has been officially declared an accident. Unlike Lizanne, Kit's far angrier, suffering from what we'd now call post-traumatic stress disorder, owing to prolonged torture and imprisonment during the Spanish-American War. Kit assumes the trappings of a playboy, sort-of courting a beautiful blonde named Barby while also spending time with a voluptuous young cabaret singer named Content. (Hughes sure knew how to populate her worlds with attractive people.) But underneath, he seethes with purpose, directed at a singular enemy, his recent captor, known by a physical attribute that provides his nickname:

    He mustn’t depend on divination; he must find out. He must kill the Wobblefoot, whoever the man was. Nor must he wait until weakened by attack, he must make an offensive drive into the enemy camp. His eyes looked upon the Luger, upon its diminutive but dread companion. No, he wasn’t afraid. Neither morally nor physically. The man must die. You feared when you were on the defensive, feeling your way through the plasma of unknown terrors. There would be no fear when you were the stalker, not the stalked.

    With Sparrow, Hughes began to filter out needless plot twists and characters and hone a crisper, no-nonsense style that was all about balancing the high-wire act of continuously escalating suspense. That tension is palpable and successful in The Blackbirder (1943), which features a resourceful spy heroine calling herself Juliet escaping and then confronting Nazi terror in the Big Apple, less so in The Delicate Ape (1944), largely because its quasi-futuristic setting (12 years after the end of the World War II) dates the book quite badly, and is entirely nonexistent in Johnnie (1944), something of an experiment for Hughes.

    A story of a Texas soldier on weekend leave in New York and of his spirited adventures stemming from a solo subway voyage, Johnnie owes more to Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free (the impetus for the smash musical On the Town) than to Hughes’s previous efforts — though a dead body does pop up, almost as an afterthought. It is, frankly, strange to read Hughes attempting comedy, but, at the same time, one can't entirely dismiss the book. The Bronx up/Battery down aw-shucks hijinks may well have helped Hughes open herself up to different forms of storytelling — like The Big Barbecue (1949), a longer novel of a girl's ambition for showbiz stardom without any crime whatsoever. And these experiments, in turn, may have allowed her to make her greatest contribution to the crime fiction field.

    During this middle period, Hughes’s not only produced In A Lonely Place, but also Ride The Pink Horse (1946), the first of her novels to showcase her beloved New Mexico environs. The Pink Horse is a terrific cat-and-mouse tale of revenge by a wronged young man, Sailor, upon “The Sen,” a father figure-turned-betrayer. The suspense is almost unbearable, the players are beautifully rendered, and there’s only one way for this story to end – in utter tragedy. The reader sees it coming and despairs nonetheless.

    Both of these novels were popular and well-regarded at the time, periodically reappearing in the public eye thanks to subsequent movie adaptations. The real revelation in Hughes's body of work turned out to be Dread Journey (1945), which has barely been written about since its initial publication. The premise, more than a little prosaic, traps all of the novel’s characters on a cross-country train from Los Angeles to New York and inevitably destines one of them for death far short of the train's final destination. But almost all of the characters have some tie to Hollywood, from the big star about to fall (Kitten Agnew), the producer/director yearning to destroy her (Vivien Spender), the star's malleable, about-to-ripen replacement (Gratia Shawn), a playboy on the periphery (Leslie Augustin), and the desperate failed screenwriter skulking back home to mama (Sidney Pringle). Two others, however, do not: the porter, James Cobbett, who sees everything but is left alone and underestimated because of class (service) and race (black), and Hank Cavanaugh, the once-hotshot reporter who has descended into alcoholism after seeing too much at the front.

    The book's title is accurate; every sentence is suffused with dread. But Hughes also offers one of the slyest portraits of how Hollywood worked then, and, in subconscious ways, still works now: the insecure, powerful men lusting for greater power, the innocents thrust into situations beyond their control, and the terrible contracts besting everybody. Viv Spender may be Hughes's most overt villain since the twins in The So Blue Marble, a man with an indomitable God complex, ready to crush anyone in his way. But even he has understandable motivations, as well as a long-suffering female secretary named Mike, who gets the crime fiction equivalent of an 11 o’clock number — and what a star turn it proves to be. The omniscient viewpoint invites the reader into the characters’ inner sancta, and what's left is bitter triumph that leaves a horrible taste in their collective mouth.


    After In a Lonely Place, Hughes began to slow down. She'd published 11 novels in just seven years — including Kiss for a Killer (1946), a shorter work originally serialized as The Scarlet Imperial — and it's difficult to keep a pace like that up for consistent mediocrity, let alone the increasing quality of Hughes's work. Taking the extra time on her non-crime novel, The Big Barbecue, meant there was a three-year gap until The Candy Kid (1950), still a nerve-jangling bit of suspense, but with a markedly different feel.

    For one, Hughes plays more overtly with motif of character ambiguity — letting others judge them to be one way, when they are, in fact, something else entirely. Which is why Jose Aragon, a well-to-do government agent of Mexican origin hanging out in Albuquerque recovering from a job, decides to play along when a blonde heiress mistakes him for the help and asks him to run an errand across the border, to pick up a box of perfume and candy. Needless to say, it's a very bad idea, and people get into a ton of trouble, and Jo (as he's nicknamed) gets mixed up in a murder that others would like to pin on him. The scenario plays out like past Hughes novels, but the stakes have a harder edge to them out West, as Aragon explains to the cool-headed blonde:

    When it’s kill or be killed, a man will kill. That doesn't mean he’s a murderer. I'll grant you that [he] didn’t have all the breaks but there isn’t any man who has had them. He had a lot more than plenty of men I know, right here in this little town. And one thing he did have, one thing that every man has is the choice between right and wrong. It’s the ones who choose wrong who whine the excuses.

    The darker edge deepens even more in The Davidian Report. It’s 1952 publication appropriately coincides with Eric Ambler's return to crime fiction, as the book has a decidedly retro-Ambler feel to it, with a secret document being smuggled out of Berlin, an American agent, Steve Wintress, entrusted to find the report and make sure it doesn’t fall into enemy hands, and less-than-trustworthy women with romantic and sinister agendas. It's Hughes adapting to the Cold War dynamics, and while the fit isn't airtight, she makes a good game of it, especially when Steve ponders his own moral contortions and comes to grips with his inner cynic:

    How could a man ever be sure of any other man? This was the age of treachery, the age when the lie was made dogma, when evasion was a sanctified virtue and ignorance a sacrament. It was the age of words but the words no longer had meaning, they had subverted into the gibberish of the new jungle. There was no more honor; how could Davidian be an honorable man? Loyalty was only a banner to be dragged through the slime; how could Davidian be loyal? In the time of Davidian, there were no verities. No, Steve could trust Davidian no more than he could trust his beloved or his friend. Such trust was archaic, there was no longer a place for such reactionary weakness.

    And then Hughes disappeared from the literary scene. She kept on reviewing for publications like the Los Angeles Times, New York Herald-Tribune, and the Albuquerque Journal, having taken up that line in the early 1940s, but the novel bug lay dormant due to domestic reasons. As she explained in a 1979 interview, “My mother was very ill and lived with me. The children were in that state of getting started in marriage, with grandchildren for me to help care for. And I simply hadn't the tranquility required to write. I wasn't frustrated because I was reviewing mysteries, and reviewing has always been very important to me.” In fact, Hughes reviewed crime fiction through the end of the 1970s, with one column presciently praising first and second novels by Nicholas Meyer and Robert B. Parker, respectively, while others extolled the perennial virtues of Ambler, Joan Fleming, and Agatha Christie.

    It's almost taboo to talk about the effects of a long break on a writer's literary health. Sometimes it's catastrophic to keep away from regular publication. At other times, though, the long silence may be restorative. It was for Hughes, who turned out to have one final masterpiece in her.


    The reissued NYRB Classics edition wisely underplays the plot summary of The Expendable Man. The first paperback edition of the book, published a year after its 1963 arrival, did no such thing. There, on the back cover, is the big reveal, which must have been perplexing to readers at the time. Granted, the book works wonderfully well knowing who Hugh Densmore, the affluent California doctor driving through Indio on his way to Phoenix for a family wedding, is, and why his identity might pose a problem if he picks up a teenage girl hitchhiker, she ends up dead, and he winds up in the crosshairs of the police. But the shock of Hugh's identity is paramount to understanding how things stood in America at the time.

    This was 1963 after all, months away from President Kennedy's assassination, in the midst of the civil rights transformation, when the whole country was on edge in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and generally anxious about everything. A man like Hugh, privileged and accomplished but still fearful, should be a total anachronism now, in a supposedly post-racial America. But he's not. A sense of tragedy sets in as you read The Expendable Man in 2012: so much has changed, but so many still cling, stubbornly, to the awful image of How Things Used to Be.

    “It's surprising what old experience remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man,” Hugh thinks early on in his drive to Indio. He knows the dangers, but is suckered into making certain choices nonetheless. He must face racist cops and feel shame for unwittingly involving his family, as well as Ellen, an attractive possible love interest, in his predicament. She finds Hugh a lawyer. But he happens to be white. “What's wrong with our own?” asks Hugh's relative. Hugh's answer is bitter and to the point: “Our own would believe me. She wants someone who would doubt.”

    The genius of The Expendable Man, as is the case with Lonely Place and, to a lesser extent, Ride the Pink Horse and Dread Journey, lies in Hughes’s ability to deepen the significance of every sentence. There's what's said and what's heard. There's what's meant and what's inferred. And then there’s the more insidious meaning, resonating against the backdrop of a much larger tale. Expendable Man is about race, but it's also about a society unwilling to move as fast as it ought to. Hughes always stands in judgment of the injustices we so complacently accept: how the forces of war can break men, and how these men can be broken further by societal indifference — and how woman have so much untapped potential, bursting to get out, but how that potential is instead corrupted, reshaped, and abused.

    When one all but closes a book, as Hughes does with The Expendable Man, with a line like “when man wants an evil, he'll always find someone evil to supply him,” what is left? Hughes had saved up for years to write this book, and said everything she had wanted to say in fiction. There would be those reviews, as well as a well-researched 1978 biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason and one of the most fecund writers ever to work in the genre. But that was it until her death at the age of 88 in 1993. Nearly two decades later, I’m still humbled and awed by Hughes's contribution to and influence on the field.

    Recommended Reads:

    LARB Contributor

    Sarah Weinman is News Editor of Publishers Marketplace and writes for the Wall Street Journal, the National Post, and many other publications. She is editing an anthology of twentieth-century domestic suspense fiction for Penguin.


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!