Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man (1963)

This is a 30 minutes challenge post. Yay! Just so you know, the Wednesday Writing session yesterday went rather well despite my huge energy slump (did I mention I’m not quite a night owl? Or a morning person? I need my beauty sleep). I worked on a birth story I started ages ago (well, obviously after Baby Smithereens’ birth, so that must have been anywhere between 4 years and 1 year ago). It was nearly 600 words and I doubled it. Of course, as all my pieces go, it’s still unfinished (I’m keeping the suspense and no, you won’t get a yummy or candid picture to go with it). If you’ve tried a Wednesday session too, drop me a line!

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When Emily from Telecommuter Talk praises a book, I tend to listen. But when she writes: “I want everyone to read it. Yes, it is that good. Even if you don’t read mysteries/thrillers, you ought to read this one.”, I don’t just listen. I stop whatever I was doing (browsing blogs, obviously), head towards Bookmooch.com website and see if I can get myself a copy immediately. Queen rules.

So that’s what I did, ahem, when she posted on that book… on September last year. The failing point of my obedience is when I get to open the book and actually read it. But something tells me I should have done it earlier.

Because, Queen rules here too: yes, it’s that good. I read it during my commute and I could hardly bear to get off at my train station. I would have sat there until the last stop and gone back the other way without much caring or noticing.

The story is so simple that you marvel at Hughes’ skill for making it great. A nice, middle-class M.D. intern from L.A. drives to a wedding party in Phoenix. On the road at night he picks up a young female hitchhiker because he fears for her safety. Doesn’t that sound like a bad idea? Or something like a cliché? Anyway, when the young girl is killed in suspicious circumstances (botched abortion plus the traditional blunt object on the head), the good man becomes the bad one. The suspicious one. The one no one bothers to listen to and defend.

And that’s when the story takes a huge turn in my French edition (an original translated from the 1960s, whereas Queen Emily had read it in a Persephone republication). The nice man is black (oops, African-American, although Phoenix cops use a lot of the n word) and in Phoenix just a few years after the start of the civil rights movement, that’s still not the right color.

That’s the trick: nothing in French from the way he looked or talked did let me think that the nice man was anything but Caucasian. But then what did I expect? So much so for prejudices. A brilliant demonstration given out to the reader by Dorothy B. Hughes.

Not only is the suspense killing us all the way, but The Expendable Man offers a lot of context in terms of political, social, class and ethnic relations. And as the book publication is contemporary to the period it’s set in, it doesn’t feel heavy, unbelievable or like too much research. That’s just the way things were at the time. And a life could just as easily derail if you made the wrong decision.

So don’t make the wrong decision. Go get this book and read it!

A question to my American readers: is it clear to them right from the start that the man is African-American? I do wonder.

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3 thoughts on “Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man (1963)

  1. Speaking as an American reader, no, it is not that clear. Did you read it in French or in English? In American English there might well have been either linguistic or social clues. Also, the title may be a play on Ralph Ellison’s well-known The Invisible Man.

  2. i was so excited to see that you’d read this book, completely forgetting that maybe you read it due to me. Anyway, so glad you liked it. I’m always worried when I tell people that they must read a book that they’ll read it and wonder what I saw in it (and to tell you the truth, I don’t remember telling everyone to read this one, but I know I was VERY impressed with it). And I was as shocked as you to discover he was Black. She meant to surprise us, I’m sure, to emphasize that the race card trumps the socioeconomic class card in our society (it did then, and it still does now).

  3. this book sounds amazing – I must have somehow missed Emily’s post about it. I am definitely putting it on the tbr list! And your writing challenge sounds fun AND manageable!

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