“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.”
(Dorothy B Hughes in 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 stop. 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.
And 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.
The Expendable Man is my entry for letter X in the Crime Fiction Alphabet.
Yes, it starts with X the sound rather than X the letter, but X is so difficult and I promised myself I wouldn’t read a book just because I had a letter to fill. I had no X books on my shelves, I could find none that I wanted to read in the library, and I did want to read this one.
And I think those are good enough reasons to bend the rules just a little!
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.
“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”
And so next week Y is for … ?