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The Expendable Man

by Dorothy B Hughes
Persephone book no:

67 68 69

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155576

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes is the second thriller published by Persephone Books (our first was the very successful The Blank Wall). But it is far more than a crime novel. Just as Hughes's earlier books had engaged with the political issues of the 1940s – the legacy of the Depression, and the struggles against fascism and rascism – so The Expendable Man, published in 1963 during John F. Kennedy’s presidency and set in Arizona, evokes the emerging racial, social and moral tensions of the time.

As described by the New Yorker, "The Expendable Man begins with Dr. Hugh Densmore, a U.C.L.A. medical intern, on the road to Phoenix, headed for his niece’s wedding. On his way into Arizona, he makes the mistake of picking up a hitchhiking girl out in the desert. She’s rude and ugly and snaps the gum he gives her ungratefully. She seems to be in trouble, but even after he drops her at the bus station, he’s the one looking over his shoulder. In blank, dusty Phoenix it’s a hundred degrees every day, and Densmore changes his shirt every chance he gets. Soon the girl shows up at his motel and demands that he give her an abortion. He refuses. Then she turns up in the papers, some time after her body has been found in a canal." This is followed by an unforgettable plot twist that positions everything that's gone before in an entirely new light...

Dorothy B. Hughes began her writing career in 1940 when she was 36. In 1944 she went to Hollywood to work as an assistant on Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound. ‘It was my job to sit on the set and see how he worked’; and here she met Ingrid Bergman, one result being that Humphrey Bogart bought the film rights to one of her books. This, the best and most celebrated of the Dorothy B Hughes films, was derived from her dark masterpiece, In a Lonely Place (1947).

When The Expendable Man first came out, the New York Times called it ‘Mrs Hughes’s finest work to date, of unusual stature both as a suspense story and as a straight novel’, commending its ‘unrelenting suspense, deft trickery and firmly penetrating treatment of individual and social problems.’ As a purveyor of brilliantly-constructed mid-century noir, Hughes ranks with the likes of Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith, at the same time incorporating themes of race, the environment, and women's rights. She is also fascinating about Arizona in the '60s.

Also available as a Persephone eBook


Endpapers taken from a 1963 fabric by Friedlinde de Colbertado Dinzl

Read What Readers Say

She Reads Novels (via Instagram)

I highly recommend reading 'The Expendable Man’. I was completely gripped from beginning to end and couldn’t bear to put the book down until I knew what was going to happen to Hugh. There’s an element of mystery-solving to the novel, but it’s much more than a straightforward crime story. A few chapters into the book, there’s a twist – or maybe revelation is a better word to use – that changed the way I felt about what I had read so far and showed me that I had made an unfair assumption without even being aware that I had made it. It was so cleverly done and provided answers to some of the things I’d been wondering about as I read those earlier chapters. I also loved the author’s beautifully written descriptions of the landscape.

Maxim Jakubowski, ‘The Guardian’

This reissue of [Dorothy B. Hughes’s] final novel, first published in 1963, is most welcome, an exhilarating no-holds-barred semi-political noir thriller denouncing racial abuse in the American southwest. A doctor picks up an attractive teenage female hitchhiker and runaway on an Arizona road and begins a slow, systematic descent into an American hell. It took real guts to write [this novel] at the time of the Goldwater presidential campaign, Governor Wallace’s declarations and much simmering racism. The book still grips like a vice, and hasn’t dated one bit.

Sara Peretsky, ‘The Guardian’

Today Dorothy B Hughes is remembered for ‘In a Lonely Place’ (1947) but my personal favourite is ‘The Expendable Man’ (1963). Hughes lived in New Mexico and her love of its bleak landscape comes through in carefully painted details. She knows how to use the land sparingly, so it creates mood. The narrative shifts from the landscape to the doctor, who reluctantly picks up a teen hitchhiker. When she’s found dead a day later, he’s the chief suspect, and the secrets we know he’s harbouring from the first page are slowly revealed. Hughes’s novels crackle with menace. Like a Bauhaus devotee, she understood that in creating suspense, less is more. Insinuation, not graphic detail, gives her books an edge of true terror. She’s the master we all could learn from.

Categories: America Men (books about) Overseas Race Teenagers (books for) Thrillers

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