If you are a film buff, you would have probably seen the 1950 film In a Lonely Place starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Its classic, vintage noir fare and a film that has garnered accolades; Bogart’s performance in particular was considered to be his finest.

I have yet to see the movie. But what caught my eye was that it was based on a novel of the same name written by the author Dorothy B Hughes.

Typically, whenever there is a film adaptation of a book, I prefer reading the book first (there are exceptions to this self-imposed rule of course; Game of Thrones is one that comes to mind where I dived right into the TV series without having read the books).

In a Lonely Place was no exception. A couple of years ago, I read the book, and I loved it. Sometime in the future, sooner rather than later, I hope to view the film too.

The point is, I was so impressed by In a Lonely Place that I decided to pick up another of Hughes’ works and settled on The Expendable Man.

The Expendable Man
NYRB Classics Edition

This is going to be a short review simply because The Expendable Man is one of those novels where the less said the better.

When the novel opens, Hugh Denismore is on his way from Los Angeles to Phoenix, in his mother’s Cadillac, to attend a family wedding. We are in the desert region here, as the opening lines tell us…

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 dark horizon were discerned only be 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 bronze of the sun.

While he is driving, Hugh glimpses a young woman sitting under a tree, possibly looking to hook a ride.

It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.

It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before the newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. Most assuredly he would not pick up anyone in this strange, deserted land.

His first instincts tell him to carry on, but the idea of leaving the woman there alone does not appeal to him either, and so he stops to drop her to her destination.

From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed the 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.

At the outset the class distinction becomes clear. Hugh is a medical intern at a reputed college in LA. His family is highly respected, educated, and well to do. It’s a large close knit family with solid social connections. It would be fair to say that Hugh’s has been a privileged, comfortable life so far.

The complete opposite holds true for the young woman he picks up. Her family life seems dysfunctional with not much income. And she is rather brash and rude.

Throughout the ride, Hugh is rather uneasy and on the tenterhooks. One instance being when a car filled with kids passes him on the road.

In his rear-view mirror, he watched until it disappeared in the distance. Just for a moment, he had known fear. It might have been the same group which had hectored him in town. The trap might be sprung by his picking up the girl; they might swing about and come after him. Only when the car had disappeared from sight, did he relax and immediately feel the fool. It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumedly educated, civilized man.

Why is Hugh uncomfortable? What is he afraid of? At that point, we don’t know.

But, it is enough to prompt him to drop the girl at a bus station rather than all the way. And, he heaves a huge sigh of relief when she finally takes leave of him.

Or does she? Unfortunately for Hugh the matter does not end there. In fact, a violent crime takes place, and Hugh finds himself embroiled in it much against his wishes.

That’s the basic premise of the story.

But it is about a quarter into the novel, where things get really interesting. That is where author Dorothy Hughes expertly introduces a ‘twist’.

This twist is an eye-opener because it ultimately forms the core around which the novel revolves. It makes you go back and recollect what you have read so far. And it makes you question your assumptions and prejudices.

It’s really rather well done and takes the novel up a notch.

Besides this central premise, The Expendable Man is also a novel that examines class and wealth, and how having both does not always guarantee ‘safety’ as commonly perceived. It can be an illusion and an untoward event, in a single stroke, can simply destroy it.

Is that what happens to Hugh Denismore? Does he extricate himself from this sticky situation?

This is another solid, superb noir fare from Hughes’ pen.


3 thoughts on “The Expendable Man – Dorothy B. Hughes

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