The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes

The greatest American crime novelist you’ve never heard of is Dorothy Hughes. Unless, of course, you’ve already heard of her.

Ms. Hughes wrote some 14 crime novels in the 1950’s and 60’s, then retired from the scene to become a leading critic of the genre. She’s something of a writer’s writer, long admired by those working in crime fiction but not widely known. You may have seen the Humphrey Bogart film based on her novel In a Lonely Place, which is terrific by the way. Both book and film.

A few years ago, she enjoyed something of a mini renaissance, with quite a few titles released as reprints which is how I found her and her wonderful novel The Expendable Man.

The Expendable Man concerns a young medical intern, almost a full doctor, travelling in his family’s white Cadillac across the California desert to Phoenix to attend a family wedding. On the way he passes a hitchhiker, a young woman, Iris, going to meet her boyfriend to marry him? to confront him? to get an abortion? We’re never really sure what her intentions were. But our hero, Hugh, cannot leave her standing on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. He decides to give her a ride home. This decision may cost him everything as she is found a day later lying dead in a canal. Cause of death? A blow to the head? A botched abortion? Either will be easy for the police to pin on Hugh, her fingerprints are all over his car after all.

The Expendable Man works as a thriller from the start. Why is Hugh so worried about the car full of teenagers that may be following him? What is young Iris really up to and how much can she be trusted? Is there any way for Hugh to convince the police that he is innocent when the circustantial evidence makes him look very guilty? A murder weapon is even found hidden underneath his fender. The sense of doom pervading the novel is nearly overwhelming.

One argument for the usefulness of crime fiction is the window it can provide into the social mores of its subjects. This is 1960. Abortion is considered a terrible sin by every character in the book except the “doctors” who provide them. Doctors like Hugh and his colleagues are consistently horrified by the “doctors” who clandestinely perform abortions. The situations Hugh encounters in his hunt for the real killer read like an expose into the horrors of the abortion underground. Ms. Hughes is clearly firm in her opposition to abortion. She means for the horrible scenes to deter women from seeking them, but these same scenes could be used today by advocates in favor of a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions. It’s a very interesting look at 1960’s morality.

The real twist in the story comes around page 50 when Ms. Hughes reveals her hero/narrator to be Black. I confess, I did quite the double-take at this reveal though there were a few signs along the was. His fear of the teenagers he kept encountering on his drive through the desert suddenly made sense along with his reluctance to pick up the lone white girl, Iris. Even the opening sentence of the book hinted at this twist, “Across the tracks there was a different world.” Suddenly, it becomes very clear how easily Hugh might lose his internship and career once his choice to pick up a hitchhiker went even a little bit wrong.

The Expendable Man is a commentary on race relations as well as abortion. In both cases Ms. Hughes is believable and insightful. So much so that the book comes with an afterward by Walter Mosley. Dorothy Hughes was a white woman living and writing book reviews in Los Angeles. That she is able to get into the character of a black man so effectively is a testament to her ability as a novelist.

Since this website states at the top that spoilers may appear, I’ll end by saying that while I read this novel with a constant threat of doom, I really saw on way for Hugh to convincingly get out of the trap he’d fallen into, Ms. Hughes gives him a happy ending that I completely believed. There’s even a possibility that he’ll end up with a medical career and the woman of his dreams in the end.

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