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
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