The Expendable Man, recently re-printed by the literary and design geniuses at NYRB Classics and originally written by Dorothy B. Hughes in 1963, is a dangerous sort of book for me. I loved it, but I raced through it—not in a way that stopped me seeing its many points of excellent craft and even brilliance, but too fast for me to make notes or stick my beloved Post-It flags everywhere. But after what’s been for me a bit of an NYRB Classics drought (just by chance), I must share this fortuitously rediscored classic of mystery and noir.
The bare outline of the story is straightforward, especially in noir terms. Dr. Hugh Densmore, an intern at UCLA’s medical center, is on a drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix, home of his extended family, to attend his niece’s wedding. After a quick stop in Indio for a bite to eat, he spots a lone teenage girl far outside of town, in the desert. Despite his extreme hesitation to pick up a hitchhiker, her age and forlorn location won’t let him drive on in good conscience. Here he picks up Iris Crumb, inveterate liar—just the kind of constantly and often inexplicably lying woman you’d find in Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. She has her reasons, certainly, but neither the reader nor Hugh knows what they are for quite a while. Before long it’s clear that she’s a pro at this, and too much for Hugh to handle. Despite his best efforts to the contrary, he ends up driving her all the way to Phoenix, hoping that her drop-off at the bus station is the last he will ever see of the girl. But in a novel like this, we know that cannot possibly be the case.
But the nearer we get to Phoenix, the more clear it becomes that we don’t know nearly everything about Hugh either. Walter Mosley absolutely nails in his afterword to this edition the skill with which Hughes begins this psychological tension. “Her understated description of the young driver’s rising nervousness as he moves through this world has us wondering: Why is he questioning himself, what is he afraid of? She calibrates the tension carefully: What could be more innocent or decent than this young doctor helping out a young woman in a dusty town?” He is, after all, a doctor in a respectable car—a Cadillac borrowed from his mother—and clearly not bent on starting any trouble of his own. But out in the desert, away from LA, a black man doesn’t have to go looking for trouble when he has a mysterious, lying, white young girl in his car. The suspicion builds until it’s clear that this is a Big Problem. And any veteran reader of noir, or attentive reader to Hughes’s quiet tension-building, knows that his trouble has only just begun.
I don’t know that I have ever encountered race treated in quite this way in a novel, and it strikes me as an impressive achievement. For one thing, the setting is unusual; Hugh is far from the Deep South, but hardly far at all from the concerns of integration. His family is solidly middle-class and respectable, which is a source of great security for him personally, but also a source of danger—they have that much more to lose by even innocent entanglements with the law. And his class position leaves him in some ways unable to deal with the scam artists who rightly see him as an easy target. A “Negro doctor,” a “girl in trouble”—the stage is clearly set for Disaster, and in the middle of what should be a time of family joy and togetherness. In the eyes of crooks as well as at least some of the law enforcement establishment, he is clearly an “expendable man,” not at all a safe position to find oneself in. And his unwillingness to ask for help, of his family, who will worry, of strangers, on whom he is imposing, and of a white lawyer, partly out of pride, lead him into the further danger of trying to accomplish on his own what he really cannot do without help.
Though always conscious of the precariousness of his social situation, depressingly well-conveyed by Hughes, Hugh remains far from accustomed to the powerlessness of the accused black man—all the more so when the crime involved is sexual, and a dead white girl is in the mix. Resolved to tell the truth, as the innocent man he is, he soon realizes that almost nothing he can do will get him out of the hole he’s been thrust into by circumstance, deception, and evil. The hostility of the police, or at least of particular officers, puts him in a lose-lose situation he does not know how to navigate. When a relatively friendly sheriff jokes that the small Scottsdale police station doesn’t have proper glasses for drinking water, Hugh’s utterly normal behavior is more than enough to offend the extreme bigot also assigned to the case.
“We’re not as fancy here as you in Los Angeles, are we?”
Bemused, Hugh said, “I wouldn’t know. This is the first time I’ve been in a police station.” He’d never thought of it before; stations were so familiar from movies and television.
Ringle snorted, “You never got a traffic ticket?”
He mustn’t antagonize the buffalo further. He tried a smile at him. “Oh yes. I’ve had my share of those. But I always pay through the Auto Club.” And realized at once that he’d done it again. Not for using the service but by taking for granted the use. Ringle’s reaction was visible on his face. Such conveniences were for white people; Negroes shuffled in line before a judge.
In fact, Ringle is not even the extreme bigot; that role is reserved for his partner Venner. Venner arrives at Hugh’s grandparents’ house, where he is staying in Phoenix, to collect his medical bag for evidence. The normalcy of Hugh’s life, smothered by the bigoted insistence on its variance from such normalcy, is heartbreaking—but, I think, exceptionally and feelingly rendered by Hughes. “Venner gawked around the living room. ‘Looks right nice.’ It looked exactly like the living room of anyone’s grandparents.” After doing his best to bait Hugh into a physical altercation, Venner leaves, but “[h]e had a last word as he went out the front door. ‘Fresh air sure smells good.'”
Hugh’s rock of stability during his ordeal is Ellen Hamilton, a higher-class girl he’s only just met but instinctively sees as extremely intelligent and competent. Her father is a judge, but she’s quick to deny that she herself is much of a “crusader.” But she knows who she is, and her resolve to live out the life she deserves brings dignity and hope to a world so much more deeply tainted by racism than our own. When Hugh is impressed at her swimming at the motel pool in Phoenix, she’s frank and simple, without any hint of Pollyannaism:
“I like to swim. I don’t think many of the guests will leave in high indignation if I do. Most of them are darker than I.” She smiled slightly. “And somehow I don’t believe the management will drain the pool afterwards. It’s too expensive a job.” Her smile widened. “They may add a bit more chlorine.”
He sipped the good drink comfortably. “If you were Lilymay Johnson in for the night you wouldn’t dare it.”
“I’m not Lilymay Johnson, I’m Ellen Hamilton,” she stated coolly. “And if I swim here, that much sooner Lilymay will swim here.”
“Of course you’re right,” he agreed. “It’s legal, now it must become custom.”
Of course, that transition from legality to custom is a long, hard road, which Hugh himself is also clearly a part of. As a mystery, The Expendable Man is excellent. The tone, the pacing, the action, the suspense—Hughes is clearly a master of the form. But she does much more with it than just that, confronting issues that I can’t deny are still difficult to read about.