Original date of publication (1963)
My edition: 2006 (Persephone books)
Why I decided to read: browsing on Persephone’s website
How I acquired my copy: Persephone bookshop, Lambs Conduit Street London, September 2009
In The Expendable Man, Hugh Densmore is a young intern doctor who travels from his hospital in LA to Phoenix to attend a relative’s wedding. On his way there, he picks up a young, teenage hitchhiker, who later ends up dead in Scottsdale. As you might expect, the subject of the novel, and its tone, is extremely dark and gritty—almost bleakly so. Coupled with descriptions of the heat of the desert, Arizona is therefore a perfect place to set this novel, which also addresses larger social and racial themes—think a Patricia Highsmith plot paired with a Harper Lee message, although less skillfully done.
The “wrong man accused” plot is common in fiction, but Dorothy Hughes breathes new light into it with a stunning twist about a third of the way through. It’s an especially incredible twist considering that this novel takes place only a few years after the civil rights movement. In some ways I wish that the twist had been revealed a little bit earlier, however. Also, I’m not so sure that people would have been so impervious to issues of race so soon after the civil rights movement. But the impact of what happens is absolutely stunning nonetheless.
Hughes is also skilled at writing about the Arizona landscape—though I wish she’d written more about the wildlife (where are the coyotes? Bobcats? Javelinas? Scorpions? The latter would have made for great symbolism in this novel). Still, Dorothy Hughes knew the Phoenix/Scottsdale area quite well, and describes it in minute detail, right down to specific establishments on specific streets. Hughes keeps saying how isolated the Arizona landscape is, so it’s amazing to think how much the area must have been developed since then. The Expendable Man perhaps isn’t my favorite of the books that Persephone has reprinted, but it’s an extremely atmospheric thriller that I enjoyed a lot.
This is Persephone #68.