The Krull House – Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

I am slowly making my way through Georges Simenon’s novels, particularly his ‘roman durs.’ Having previously written about The Blue Room and Act of Passion, both very good, I thought The Krull House was another excellent novel, quite absorbing and also frightening.

The Krull House is a prescient and suspenseful tale of how close-knit communities harbor feelings of mistrust towards outsiders, how they are excluded because their perceived foreignness make them objects of suspicion and resentment. Although this book was penned in the late 1930s, its themes remain relevant even today.

When the novel opens, we are told that the Krull family, whose origins are German, lives on the fringes of a rural town in France, near the canal. The head of the family, Cornelius Krull, weaves and sells baskets and for the most part is seen in his workshop engrossed in his tradecraft. Originally from Germany, Cornelius through the course of his wanderings in Europe, suddenly decides to stop at this French town and settle there. Cornelius’ wife Maria runs the family bar and shop. The couple has three children – the eldest daughter Anna, who helps Maria with the household chores, Joseph who is studying to become a doctor, and Liesbeth, who is a budding pianist.

Because of their background, the town residents shun the Krull establishment, but the family members need to survive and so they resign themselves to do business with the bargees on the canal.

Their closed-off, hermetic existence, though, is rattled when cousin Hans comes to live with them. Hans is Cornelius’ nephew (his brother’s son) but they have not been in touch for many years. Hans is a typical German Krull – brash, insouciant and carefree, whereas the French Krulls are anything but – their manner is quiet and restrained.

From the outset, Hans’ presence unsettles the family. Although his father is dead, Hans withholds this information, giving them the false impression he is alive, and concocts some story about why he is in France. He willingly admits he lied, however, to Liesbeth with whom he begins an affair.

Meanwhile, we learn that Joseph, attracted to a girl named Sidonie, has been following her and her friend Germaine, because he can’t muster the courage to ask her out, a development that does not escape Hans’ ever watchful eye. To complicate matters, Hans with his wild, assertive behaviour continues to irk the Krull family members who are desperately trying to fit in and not attract unnecessary attention.

Things come to a boil when Sidonie’s body is found floating on the canal one morning. Clearly, she has been murdered…And the Krull family, unwillingly, finds itself in the middle of a maelstrom that threatens to erupt into violence.

Simenon is brilliant at capturing the personalities of the various Krull family members, the way they are at complete odds with their neighbours, and how they slide into a predicament they have no wish to be a part of.

Cornelius is an amazingly quiet man, so much so that the family hardly notices his presence. Although he has made a home in this French town, he hasn’t made any special efforts to integrate or blend with its inhabitants and barely mingles with the townspeople. Even after all these years, he isn’t fluent in French, and having forgotten much of German, he speaks in a language that is a curious amalgam of both that only his family can understand. Is there more to him than meets the eye though?

It was then that Maria Krull was struck by Cornelius’ attitude. He still hadn’t moved. He was looking down at the tablecloth, and no emotion could be seen in his eyes. But he seemed older, all at once. There he was, silent, motionless, and nobody knew what he was thinking.

The rest of the family tries hard to fit in with not much success. Maria Krull, in a way, is the rock of the family scrambling to hold the ship together but is frustrated at how they are always at the receiving end. In this regard, a conversation between Hans and Liesbeth highlights the family dilemma…

Liesbeth: ‘People have been so awful to us!’

Hans: ‘Why?’

‘Because of everything! Because we’re foreigners! At school, the children called me the Kraut, and the teacher would say to me in front of the whole class: “Mademoiselle, when one receives a country’s hospitality, one has to double the duty to behave well.” 

 Meanwhile, Joseph and Hans could not have been more different. Both men are in their mid-twenties, but whereas Joseph is shy, awkward, lacking in self-esteem, Hans is insolent, bold and socially at ease. No wonder then, while Joseph resents Hans immensely, Hans eyes him with undisguised contempt.

Hans, however, is very perceptive and is acutely aware of why the locals view the Krulls the way they do. In his many conversations with Maria Krull he points out a fault in them which he thinks is crucial – the Krulls are either too eager to please people or too laidback to do anything about it, there is never any middle ground.

Throughout the book, Simenon’s prose is spare and simple and there’s an atmosphere of menace and dread that permeates the novel as we wonder how these various elements are going to play out.

This novel was published in 1939 at a time when the rumblings of a Second World War were beginning to get louder and Hitler was marching across Europe. It also meant that the general distrust towards Germans was probably at its peak. Thus, the Krulls, by virtue of being German, were singled out even though they had been French residents for a long time. Maybe they never had a chance.

The Krull House, then, is a powerful, unsettling exploration of how unfairly society judges outsiders, a fact that is even more pronounced in smaller communities, the hostile treatment meted out to them, and how they become dead ducks when something goes wrong. The abundance of malicious rumours flying around unsupported by any shred of concrete evidence, makes their attempt to establish themselves futile from the start.

These are the very forces that hurtle like a juggernaut towards the unfortunate Krulls as the novel reaches its terrifying conclusion.

Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor (tr. Sophie Hughes)

Hurricane Season caught my eye as soon as it was published and the slew of positive reviews only fuelled my appetite. Not surprisingly, it has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize and widely touted to win it.

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. The novel is set in the village of La Matosa – a few miles from the town or city of Villa – a decrepit place of abject poverty dotted with roughly built shacks and surrounded by sugarcane fields.

In the first chapter, the shortest of the eight, a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal. The identity of the corpse is no big secret, the boys immediately identify it as that of the Witch.

The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

They called her the Witch, the same as her mother; the Young Witch when she first started trading in curses and cures, and then, when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.

One of the rumours surrounding the Witch, which assumes mythical proportions, is the alleged wealth that she is concealing – a wealth that comprises gold and various other treasures, which she likely inherited from her mother the Old Witch after the latter murdered her husband. And yet while these tales of hidden wealth refuse to die down, they don’t somehow match up to the filthy conditions prevalent in her home.

The village, however, continues to be fascinated with the Witch. The women visit her home to consult her about a myriad of illnesses and also to discuss domestic issues, while the men get attracted to the drug fuelled parties she regularly hosts.

The murder of the Witch then forms the base upon which the bulk of the novel rests. After the first couple of chapters, we are presented with four different perspectives (and these are the longest chapters in the novel). Each of these narratives circles closer to the Witch’s murder, throwing more light, and illuminating the motives behind it.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. What these narratives also do is paint a grim picture of an ugly village mired in poverty and crime, a brutal world where it is increasing difficult for its people to rise above their bleak circumstances.  

The central character in these four accounts is Luismi, a boy in his teens, and we are given an inkling of his involvement in the crime in the first narrative itself – that of his elder cousin Yesenia. Yesenia is the eldest of her siblings, brought up by their grandmother, who treats them poorly but dotes on her grandson Luismi the same way she doted on Luismi’s father. This results in a deep seated resentment towards Luismi as Yesenia laments her fate and tries to paint Luismi’s true colours to their grandmother but in vain.

The second chapter centers around Munra, who is Luismi’s stepfather and crippled by an accident. Although Luismi’s relationship with his mother is strained, he nevertheless resides with them. Through Munra, Luismi is depicted as a young man addicted to drugs that leaves him dazed most of the time and under the influence of a young girl who he shacks up with, a girl not to be trusted.

The third chapter focuses on this young girl Norma and we learn of the circumstances leading to how she ends up with Luismi. And the fourth account is that of Brando, Luismi’s friend and also complicit in the crime against the Witch.

Luismi is clearly the focal point in these chapters, and yet we are never given his perspective, we always see him through the lens of others. For the most part he comes across as completely drug addled and spaced out harbouring dreams of a job in an oil company promised to him by an ‘engineer friend’. And yet every narrative brings out a different side to him driving home the possibility that he is not as bad as he is made out to be.

Violence and foul language practically drips on every page. Men regularly hurl insults and beat women, and the younger girls are not spared from physical and sexual abuse either. It’s a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty and casual violence ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future. In the village of La Matosa particularly, the men hold no meaningful jobs and waste away in drugs, drink and prostitutes. The women latch on to men, get pregnant regularly but this only accentuates their woes as the burden of raising kids and holding on to meager paying jobs falls on them.

…what happened to her mother after a spell of going out at night in her flesh-coloured tights and her high heels, when from one day to the next her body would start to swell, reaching grotesque proportions before finally expelling a new child, a new sibling for Norma, a new mistake that generated a new set of problems for her mother, but above all, for Norma: sleepless nights, crushing tiredness, reeking nappies, mountains of sicky clothes, and crying, unbroken, ceaseless crying. Yet another open mouth demanding food and whingeing…

The only thriving establishments around La Matosa are highway dives and brothels, which are also magnets for drug peddlers.

Of the four narratives, the chapter on Norma and Brando are particularly disturbing and sometimes difficult to stomach – the one on Norma more so because it delves deeper into the deviant mind of a child molester.

And yet despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless. She does not mince words but depicts a small claustrophobic world in the back of beyond just the way it is.

It’s a book that deserves its place on the International Booker shortlist.

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

I love Patricia Highsmith. The first novel I read all those years ago was the one she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. That was a tremendous book and I subsequently went on to read the next two books in the ‘Ripliad’ – Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game, both excellent, though I still rate the first book higher.

But Highmith also wrote non-Ripley books. And many of them are brilliant. The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary come to mind. And to this list, I will also add This Sweet Sickness.

‘For eliciting the menace that lurks in familiar surroundings, there’s no one like Patricia Highsmith.’ – an apt quote displayed in the opening pages of my Virago edition.

In This Sweet Sickness, we are in classic Highsmith territory. The opening paragraph immediately draws the reader into her dark, troubling world…

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.

He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night.

The ‘Situation’ in a nutshell is like this – David Kelsey is deeply in love with Annabelle and at one point they even briefly courted. But a job change, promising a better pay, compelled David to move to another city. In the meanwhile, Annabelle married another man Gerald and set up home with him. David, therefore, is distraught and deeply jealous.

David is a chemical engineer at Cheswick Fabrics, very good at his job and also respected. On weekdays, he resides in a boarding house in Froudsburg run by the chatty and jovial Mrs McCartney. As far as the other boarders and Mrs McCartney are concerned, David is a model resident. He does not drink, does not entertain women late at night in his room, and visits his ailing mother in a nursing home without fail on weekends.

But nothing is as it seems in Highsmith’s universe. The reader soon realizes that there is something fishy about the last bit. David’s mother died ages ago. So, he spends his weekend, not in a nursing home, but in a house he has bought in Ballard, some miles from the boarding house in Froudsburg.

It’s his own home, cozy and comfortably furnished, a home he plans to settle in with Annabelle once she divorces Gerald. Because you see, David is dead sure of this happening. For him, the husband is just an inconvenience to be straightened out.

Life was very, very strange, but David Kelsey had an invincible conviction that life was going to work out all right for him.

But there’s more. When David is living in his house, he is no longer David Kelsey but rather William Neumeister. It’s the alias he used when he purchased the property too. It’s a secret existence and nobody in his life (not even Annabelle) know of his ‘other’ identity.

And sometimes, after the two martinis and a half bottle of wine at dinner, he imagined that he heard Annabelle call him Bill, and that made him smile, because when that happened, he’d gotten tangled up himself. In this house, his house, he liked to imagine himself – William Neumeister – a man who had everything he wanted, a man who knew how to live, to laugh, and to be happy.

There are other characters who get embroiled in David’s drama, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. There’s his best friend Wes Carmichael, also his colleague at work, who is stuck in a bitter, joyless marriage. And Effie Brennan, who also lodges at the same boarding house where David stays and is secretly in love with him.

David, meanwhile, continues to write to Annabelle, continuously expressing his wish to see her.

‘Dave, this business about your house – that’s why I’m calling. You don’t seem to understand when I write to you. I can’t ever come to your house, Dave, not the way you want me to come.’

‘Naturally, I was thinking – you’d finally get a divorce.’

Dave, I don’t want a divorce. Can’t you understand that?’

Listen, Annabelle, would you like me to come to Hartford? Right now?’

‘No, Dave, that’s why I’m calling. How can I say it? You’ve got to stop writing me, Dave. It’s just causing more and more trouble. Gerald’s fit to eb tied and I do mean that.’

‘I don’t give a damn about Gerald!’

‘But I do. I’ve got to. Just because you can’t understand—-‘

Things come to a head when one day Gerald turns up at David’s weekend home. How did he learn of David’s secret house? And how will their confrontation play out?

In This Sweet Sickness then, Highsmith is once again at her riveting best as she explores the themes of identity and dangerous obsession. It’s a novel with great psychological depth, a genre Highsmith clearly excels at. Can different identities really change at the core who you are? In what way does disturbing obsession make a person lose his touch with reality?

The focus on obsession brought to mind another brilliant novel I had read a few years ago – Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, although David Kelsey is neither really down on luck nor does he spend his days in seedy bars as Hamilton’s protagonist does.

I found shades of similarity with The Talented Mr Ripley too, in that both David Kelsey and Tom Ripley seamlessly live double lives even though their motives are different.

There was another maybe significant difference. One of Highsmith’s greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for the psychopath or the murderer. It happened with Tom Ripley. In a way, it also happened with Vic in Deep Water. Interestingly though, I didn’t feel the same with David Kelsey, although he was a fascinating enough creation.

That in no way suggests that the book is any lesser for it. It has all the trademarks of Highsmith’s writing – prose that is hypnotic and compulsively readable, the sense of palpable unease and creeping dread oozing from the pages, and characters so unhinged and enthralling that the reader is interested enough to find out how it will all turn out.

All in all, an excellent book. I intend to take a break before pulling another Highsmith from the shelves, but when I do it will be a toss between Strangers on A Train and The Blunderer.

The Ivory Grin, The Barbarous Coast & The Doomsters – Ross Macdonald

I can easily say that I have become something of a Ross Macdonald addict. The first book in the Lew Archer series that I read and was impressed by was The Way Some People Die (the third in the Lew Archer series). That novel was great in terms of plot, superb characterization, and in the evocation of California.

It was my intention to stick to the order in the series, although that is strictly not necessary. However, on a short trip to London some years ago, I bought Archer #13 called Black Money and couldn’t resist delving right into it. I learnt that it Macdonald considered that book his finest achievement, and I agree that Black Money was brilliant. I also learnt later that in some way it was a retelling of The Great Gatsby, a novel Macdonald had a high opinion of, although that was a connect I did not make at the time.

I needed some comfort reads for the month and Macdonald fit the bill perfectly. I ended up reading three this time, and stuck more or less to the order.

Here, I have decided to post short write-ups for each in a single post rather than go in for a lengthy review of the three separately.

So here goes…

Macdonald

The Ivory Grin

This is the fourth novel in the Lew Archer series.

In The Ivory Grin, private detective Lew Archer is paid a visit by a tough woman who calls herself Una Larkin. Una wants Archer to trace her maid Lucy who used to work at her place.

Archer’s immediate instincts are that he is being taken for a ride as Una concocts a cock-and-bull story of why she wants Lucy tailed.

Una refuses to divulge her motives but eventually Archer becomes curious enough to accept the assignment.

Archer follows Lucy into Bella City, a run-down place filled with desolate houses, ramshackle factories, restaurants and cheap motels. It is a place with a clear divide between the affluent and the low income groups.

Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage.

Archer tails Lucy but she is murdered and Archer finds a newspaper clip in her motel room announcing a US$ 5,000 reward for any person who comes forward with information on the whereabouts of a wealthy widow’s son Charles Singleton.

Clearly, these two cases are connected and Lew Archer makes it his mission to find out how.

Meanwhile, Lucy’s boyfriend Alex is arrested for her murder although Archer is not fully convinced.

There are also many characters enter the fray, but one of the most notable is Inspector Brake who is all too keen to arrest Alex and has many sharp exchanges with Archer.

The Ivory Grin is superbly plotted. It is a tale of fear and money and is tightly woven. The dialogue crackles.

Macdonald is also great in his descriptions and evocation of a small time town such as Bella City – the physical and wretched character or lack of character of such places and the pronounced divide between the people based on money and social standing. And the various characters peppered throughout the novel are also richly drawn.

Plus, Lew Archer is a wonderful creation as a detective. What is fascinating is that we don’t know much about him but enough to gauge that he is world weary but compassionate and a man who listens. He is the lens through whom the other characters, who occupy the centrestage, are filtered.

The Barbarous Coast

This is the sixth novel in the Lew Archer series.

Once again, Macdonald has written a complex plot and this time the spotlight is on Hollywood.

Archer is summoned by Clarence Bassett, the manager of an exclusive country club for the wealthy. While he is entering the club he notices a young and hot-tempered man having an altercation with the guard Tony Torres.

Bassett wants Archer to locate the whereabouts of Hester Campbell, a star diver at the club, who is now missing. The hotheaded young man, in the meanwhile, is Hester’s husband from Canada who accuses Bassett of having an affair with her.

Archer subsequently learns that Hester is somehow mixed up with the ‘mob’ and is with Lance Leonard – Tony Torres’ nephew. Tony Torres, a retired boxer, had taken Lance under his wing and trained him as a boxer, before Lance gives him the boot.

The deeper Archer investigates, he realizes that a lot of the developments are somehow tied up to the murder of another young woman Gabrielle Torres a couple of years – a case which never got solved. Gabrielle was also Hester’s good friend.

In addition to this characters, we are introduced to many more – Simon Graff who is a successful filmmaker and a resident of the country club, his wife Isobel Graff, and some mobsters Leroy Frost and Carl Stern.

That’s the basic outline of the plot.

In typical Macdonald style, there are various threads that are woven together to form a complex story. Having said that, while this is still a solid novel, it was not as strong as The Ivory Grin. At one point it felt that there were too many characters and the story sagged a bit especially in the middle. But all in all this was a worthwhile read and I have yet to come across a Macdonald that hasn’t worked.

The writing remains as sharp as ever though…Here is Archer describing Isobel Graff…

A taste of whiskey had changed her mood, as a touch of acid will change the color of blue litmus paper.

And then sometime later, here’s an exchange…

“You are joking. You must want money. You work for money, don’t you?”

“I want it very badly,” I said. “But I can’t take this money. It wouldn’t belong to me, I would belong to it. It would expect me to do things, and I would have to do them.” 

The Doomsters

The Doomsters is the seventh novel in the Lew Archer series and in a way significant because it is this novel where Macdonald departs from the influence of Chandler and Hammett. In terms of the themes and psychological depth, it certainly felt different from The Ivory Grin and The Barbarous Coast.

One morning Archer gets a visit from Carl Hallman, a man in his thirties. We soon learn that Carl has escaped from a mental asylum where he claims he was committed by his family against his wishes. Carl is not the only one who has escaped though. The other man to flee with him is heroin addict Tom Rica, whom Archer had mentored many years ago.

Carl’s mother committed suicide many years ago, and soon after his father dies of a heart attack the same evening that he had a vicious quarrel with him, his brother Jerry also being present at the time.

His behaviour is what convinces Jerry to confine him in an asylum and he forces Carl’s wife Mildred to sign the papers.

The beginning of this Hallman family history is narrated to us through Carl while in conversation with Archer. Meanwhile, Archer is of the view that Carl needs to go back to the hospital first, and he would carry out the investigation on his behalf outside. Archer even drives him to the hospital but before that Carl manages to hoodwink Archer, steal his car and flee.

We learn that Carl has been spotted on the Hallman family ranch with a gun. It’s the same ranch where his brother Jerry and his wife Zinnie reside. Since, the parents are dead, Jerry and Zinnie stand to gain from the estate.

We also learn that Carl’s wife Mildred is the only one who believes in him and ready to defend him no matter what.

Soon another Hallman is murdered, and the blame for it falls on Carl who is still in hiding.

Archer is convinced that Carl is not the suspect, and sets out to find out how the recent murder is linked to Carl’s parents’ death many years ago. In the process, many skeletons in the Hallman closet begin to tumble out.

That is the bare outline of the story.

It is this novel where Archer’s role also evolves. He is not only a private investigator but also akin to a therapist, always listening but not immediately ready to judge. He understands that there is never a stark black and while, but in fact several shades of grey when it comes to a person’s personality.

In that sense, it is probably more Freudian in tone and plot as compared to his earlier novels, and marks the turning point, as I understand it, in terms of psychological depth, insight and the notion of deep family secrets – themes that recur in the later novels as well.

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

I’ll end with another quote…

We passed a small-boat harbor, gleaming white on blue, and a long pier draped with fishermen. Everything was as pretty as a postcard. The trouble with you, I said to myself: you’re always turning over the postcards and reading the messages on the underside. Written in invisible ink, in blood, in tears, with a black border around them, with postage due, unsigned, or signed with a thumbprint.

The Doomsters was another excellent novel in the Lew Archer series and I look forward to the next one in line – The Galton Case – which has touted as one of his best.

 

The Expendable Man – Dorothy B. Hughes

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.