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The expendable man by Dorothy B. Hughes

The expendable man (original 1963; edition 1963)

by Dorothy B. Hughes

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2401548,049 (4.02)91
Title:The expendable man
Authors:Dorothy B. Hughes
Info:New York : New York Review Books, 2012.
Collections:Your library, Ebooks, Read but unowned
Tags:American, 20th Century, Mystery, NYRB

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The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes (1963)

Recently added byprivate library, jkrzok, jotoyo, jrobles76, LukeHerson, cadolph, woolgathering, Fougasse, unread, SuzanneMR
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    The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (sturlington)
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    Pick-Up by Charles Willeford (sturlington)
    sturlington: The conceit of these two books is similar, although the Hughes novel is a better read.

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“The germ or seed was always a place, a background scene. And against that background, there began a dialogue or a monologue; whatever it was, a conversation. Then I would begin to recognise the characters. The plotting was the final step; it was people and places that interested me, not gimmicks.”

Those words were written by Dorothy B Hughes for the MWA Handbook.

When I finished reading The Expendable Man and turned to the afterword it was lovely to see the author’s own words about her writing. And lovely to be able to nod, and think, yes she does, and she does it very well.

The story opened with a man driving through the Arizona desert as he travels from Los Angeles to Phoenix. The opening paragraph sets the scene perfectly:

“Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of the dark horizon were discerned only by conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading beige of the sun.”

That sense of place continued right through the story, as did the fine quality of the writing.

Hugh Densmore was a young doctor, travelling back home for a family wedding. He saw a hitchhiker standing by the road. A young woman. And that presented him with a dilemma. Night was falling and he didn’t want to leave her there, alone and vulnerable to predators. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to take the chance of being seen as a predator, by her or by others, if he stopped and offered her a ride.

He decided to stop, to try to make sure that the young woman was safe. And she accepted his offer. But he would soon wish he hadn’t stoppped. She was ungrateful, and he could see that the stories she was telling him weren’t true. And even when he was back home, caught up with family events, he couldn’t shake her off.

There was worse to come. Hugh’s hitchhiker was found dead. Murdered. And he was the prime suspect.

And so The Expendable Man becomes a classic tale of the wrongly accused man. The man who speaks the truth, but is not believed by the authorities. The man who the real murderer sees he can easily frame. And the man who will struggle to clear his name, and to bring the real murderer to justice.

The story plays out in the way that these stories generally do, but there are many things that make this particular story so very fine.

Time and place were captured perfectly. I was transported across the Atlantic to Arizona, and back in time to 1963.

Each and every character is simply but clearly drawn. I believed in them, their relationships, their conversations.

I believed in Hugh and I had to follow him, even though I hated what was happening to him, even though I hated some of the things he saw and heard.

And then there is what many have called a twist but I am more inclined to call a revelation quite early on. I have to say that it confirmed my suspicions rather that coming as a complete surprise, but that really didn’t matter. It came naturally from the characters, from the place and the time, and it gave the story so much depth and power.

It also means that I can’t say too much more about The Expendable Man.

Other than it is a very fine novel, a very brave story to have written in the early 1960s, a crime novel with important things to say, and a book that I am happy to recommend. ( )
  BeyondEdenRock | Mar 24, 2017 |

If you could change one decision you made in your life, what would it be? I suspect we all could come up with a ‘Oh, if I only knew then what I know now!’ Well, Dorothy B. Hughes 1962 noir/crime novel ‘The Expendable Man' features one Dr. Hugh Densmore who knows exactly what decision he would change. Driving from the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles where he is a resident physician across the desert to Phoenix for a family wedding, Dr. Hugh, playing the part of mister nice guy, takes pity on a young girl hitchhiking way out in the desert, 15 miles away from the nearest small town.

In spite of knowing he shouldn’t risk it, aware of all the potential dangers, in his own mind at the time, Hugh did the right thing. We read, “He realized that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift.” Oh, Hugh, if you only knew then what was to follow.

However, ‘The Expendable Man’ is much more than a crime story. The early 1960s, when this novel was published, was a time of great change and transition in the United States, particularly in three areas: race, class and gender, especially race. Dorothy B. Hughes writes with exceptional skill in setting the scene, drawing her characters and orchestrating the action, and all with keen insight into the prevailing racial, social, cultural tensions and prejudices of the time. I wouldn’t want to say anything further about the actual story so as to spoil. But I will say that, for me, reading this novel sets my all-time personal reading record: 245 pages in one day. ‘I couldn’t put the book down until I finished’, sounds like a cliché, but with ‘The Expendable Man’, this is exactly what happened.

This New York Review Book (NYRB) classic includes a most insightful Afterward by Walter Mosely. Mr. Mosley not only speaks to the novel’s themes but also his own and his family’s experience dealing with issues of race in the United States. A novel and an essay not to be missed.
( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
Hugh Densmore is driving from L.A. to Phoenix for his niece's wedding when he picks up a hitchhiker. The girl is on her way to Phoenix to meet her aunt. Hugh suspects she is a runaway. Then the Phoenix papers report that a girl has been found dead in a canal, and it sounds a lot like the hitchhiker. And it seems as though Hugh is being stitched up for a role in her death.

This was one of those highly suspenseful books where you can't put it down, because you want to find out what happens, but at the same time you have to put it down in order to breathe. Both the plot and the setting contribute to the sense of breathlessness; Phoenix in the summer is captured vividly, with the intense, seething heat that builds early in the morning and doesn't let up until well after sundown.

There were a few moments where Hugh makes plans to do some investigating on his own to clear his name, and you want to shout at the book "Don't do it!" as if it were a horror movie with a character planning to go down to the basement.

Although this book was written in the early 1960s, it talks about issues that are still highly relevant today (sadly). The afterword in the Persephone Books edition is worth reading in that regard. Dorothy B. Hughes is an excellent suspense writer and deserves to be (re)discovered and appreciated. ( )
1 vote rabbitprincess | Jan 7, 2017 |
A young doctor driving from California to a family wedding in Phoenix, Arizona, sees a teenage girl hitchhiking on a desert road and stops to pick her up, setting in motion a chain of events that will have him suspected of murder when her body turns up a few days later.

The "expendable man" of the title refers of course to the protagonist, who becomes the wrong man conveniently accused of murder for reasons that the reader is not let in on until about 50 pages into the book. The suspense comes in following the doctor as he tries desperately to clear his name before he is arrested, which would ruin his burgeoning career even if he did avoid prison. This is a taut, cleanly written thriller that moves relentlessly forward and allows readers a glimpse into a world that is usually not explored in crime noir. I suspect it would have been even more exotic and galvanizing for readers in Hughes' day than it is now. Hughes also creates a wonderful sense of place with her Phoenix setting, a desert town on the verge of becoming urban. This was an interesting read, if a little dated, although I felt it could have been a bit more subtle and multilayered, not quite so straightforward in terms of good guys and bad. I expect for its time, though, it needed to be. ( )
  sturlington | Jan 9, 2016 |
A very smart, cleverly written and well paced noir. Hughes places an interesting spin on the wrong man noir genre here, with a soaring critique and indictment of societal prejudices and injustices. ( )
  proustitute | Jul 17, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dorothy B. Hughesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Moseley, WalterAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For my friend, Charlesetta
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Across the tracks there was a different world.
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Book description
Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother's Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, reluctantly picks up a runaway teenage girl hitchhiking.  When she is found dead a few days later, he is, for reasons unknown -- or are they? -- the first suspect.
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Hugh Densmore, a young intern, becomes obsessed with solving the murder of Iris, a young hitchhiker whom he turned away when she asked him for help.

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