Thursday, September 08, 2011

R.I.P. Challenge Book One: The Expendable Man

Hughes, Dorothy. The Expendable Man. London: Persephone Books, 2006.

(This book was originally published in 1963. If you're unfamiliar with Persephone and are wondering what that odd design I've thrown in here up above is, Persephone covers all look exactly the same. The books are defined by the end papers, chosen to match the date and mood of each book, so I've put up the end paper here.)

It seems almost impossible to write about this book without giving spoilers, but I'm going to do my damnest to do so, because I know I won't read reviews that include spoilers, and I want you to read this review in the hopes that (more important than my review) it will inspire you to read the book. 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. The book is a prime example of why genre fiction shouldn't be "pooh-poohed" the way it so often is (not by you, I know, but by all those psuedo-intellectuals out there who take themselves so very seriously). Some pooh-poohing is okay (Mary Higgins Clark springs to mind, and maybe I'm being -- psuedointellectually -- unfair to her, but I read two of her books years ago and found them to be some of the most sloppily written and plotted works I've ever read), but please don't, as my sister Forsyth would say, throw the baby out and study the bath water.

I'd love to give you all the details that prove this book is much more than a mere thriller. Yet, if I give you too many, it will spoil an element of surprise that shouldn't be revealed to anyone until he or she has fallen into the book with no hope of escape before reaching the last page. Persephone, Class Act Publisher that it is, managed to provide enticing cover copy without any of those giveaway details, and so I (despite being anything but classy) will attempt to follow in Persphone's footsteps.

Let's begin this elusive discussion, then, with a quote from a friend of mine, who also just read the book: Promise me you'll NEVER PICK UP A HITCHHIKER. How appropriate it is to be reading a thriller for the R.I.P. challenge that involves a hitchhiker. After all, we ALL, even those who didn't, at age eleven, stay up all night telling hitchhiker ghost stories at slumber parties, know not to pick up hitchhikers. Dr. Hugh Densmore, intern at UCLA, certainly knows not to pick up hitchhikers. Nonetheless, the one he spots when he's driving from L.A. to Phoenix for his niece's wedding attracts his attention. He doesn't want to pick her up, knows he shouldn't, but she's so young. She reminds him of his own younger sisters, of how he wouldn't want them picked up by the wrong sort of driver, so he stops.

He stops, and his nightmare begins. I can't tell you why (put this book on your T.B.R. list, wait ten months, and maybe you'll forget why it's there and what I'm about to say), but this fateful "good deed" of his produces a brilliant commentary on race relations, class distinctions, and abortion rights. I'm not sure whether or not Hughes intended the latter, but it's there, and because she was writing in the U.S. in the 1960s, the punch she provides is more powerful than the one writers might provide after the fact (think John Irving and The Cider House Rules, especially since the abortionist in this book would make a great freshman English compare and contrast subject with Irving's Wilbur Larch).

I can tell you that Hugh's nightmare is typical of many a mystery (The Fugitive springs to mind here) when he finds himself accused of a murder he didn't commit. He makes many, many mistakes in trying to prove he's been framed, and I'm not quite sure why he makes some of the choices he does, but I suppose there wouldn't be much of a plot if he didn't. You could accuse Hughes of creating characters who suffer from being one dimensional, especially her cops, but no more so than many other brilliant authors of the genre. The point of these thrillers is plot, not knowing that the cops and bad guys go home and lovingly care for children or sick parents, thus proving how human and complicated they really are. What's important is how they are interacting with our protagonist and victim(s) to move the plot along. Hughes had a fine grasp of how that should work. One-dimensional characters are also useful when trying to make political points, which Hughes was clearly doing.

Although this book, on many levels, has a very masculine feel to it, one thing I liked about it that clearly distinguishes it from the male likes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald was the obligatory "beat up the protagonist" scene. If you're familiar with Chandler, Hammett, or Macdonald, you know perfectly well that Marlowe, Spade, and Archer can be beaten to a pulp (one eye swollen shut, a couple of fractured ribs, even be shot in the ankle or something) and still run 57 blocks, climbing a chain link fence to escape (or to catch) a bad guy. Here, we have a protagonist who gets beaten to a pulp and winds up in bed for a few days. When he does decide to pursue someone he thinks is a murderer, he needs drugs to pump himself up, and we are still reminded, throughout, that he's practically a cripple, wincing in pain with every opportunity. I call that a (feminine) realistic touch.

My one real gripe with the book is one that I often feel like writing a whole blog post about. When one of the Black characters wants to disguise the woman he's with and himself as shiftless and poor, he changes his own accent and asks her "Can you talk southern?" As if you have to be Southern in order to be shiftless and poor, and as if articulate, educated Blacks couldn't be found in the South. Yes, even in 1963, there were articulate, educated Blacks in the South (also articulate, educated Whites). Martin Luther King, Jr., after all, was Southern. The female character's response is even more absurd,

She shrugged. 'I've been told not too well, northern comes through. If I have to speak I'll stay with "Yes, suh: and "No, suh."' (p. 310)
As if some drunk white guy in Phoenix will be able to hear "northern coming through." Judging from what often passes as a Southern accent in Hollywood, I'd say most who aren't born and raised in the South can't hear that.

It's a testament to the book that this Southern stereotyping didn't annoy me as much as it often does. In fact, if you're not Southern, my guess is you won't even notice it when you read the book, and if you are, you may still be like me, ready to read more Hughes. And that's all I'm going to say. You'll have to read the book to find out whether or not he gets The Girl (yes, of course there's a Girl) and goes free to live happily ever after, or the Girl dumps him to go off with the lawyer who can't keep him from being thrown in jail.

Good stuff. Four stars.


Carl V. Anderson said...

This sounds terrific just from the hints you've given about the story. And I think you did a great job not revealing anything to spoil things. I've only purchased a few Persephone books, and oddly enough those are more recent releases where they actually have cover art of older paintings (very nicely done). This book sounds fantastic and will go on my ever-growing list. Ack, it is getting so HUGE!

I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Stefanie said...

Sounds like this was fun and, for a horror wimp like myself, not nightmare inducing. Unless you left that part out because it is a spoiler. :)

Emily Barton said...

Carl, I can't imagine with all the challenges you've hosted over the years that your TBR tome isn't multiple volumes. This one's well worth putting in it, though.

Stef, a perfectly harmless read for a horror wimp, and I think you'd like it (translation: I would love to read your take on it).

Kailana said...

This sounds really good! Thanks for the review!

Emily Barton said...

Kailana, you're welcome!

litlove said...

This does sound good (although I think it's your review that does it). I just wanted to add that on the writers' site I visit, the forums were full of discussion today about what 'commercial' fiction is, and the consensus was that it is fun, enjoyable, money-making writing, as opposed to literary fiction, which you'd only read if you were made to, because it's hard work and tedious and publishers hate it because it never sells.

I got involved in this discussion, trying to suggest that NO genre has the monopoly on fun and sales. But to no avail. So I don't think you need worry that it's genre fiction where readers have prejudice...

Susan said...

Persephone Books! And a mystery thriller! Well, I'm sold, and that was before you talked about the book!

Excellent review. I want to read this now. I'll ignore the other 6 Persephone books I have on my shelf waiting to be read, and just see if I can justify ordering this one for me :-D lol

It's interesting you should pick up on the racism in the books, which I also find in rereading books from the 1960-1970's. I think it's interesting that race and class did permeate so much of literature then, and now, we don't write about it the same way. Is it because north american writers think it's solved? or because it's so touchy that no one wants to go near it now? And yet, the stereotyping exists - I know, even in my own job, it's there, sly and underhand. I think The Expendable Man would be interesting to look at for this, though as always, it's the story that counts, and you've made it sound very good!

Kate said...

This sounds really, really excellent. I'm going to have to see if I can dig up a copy at my local library. Thanks for the review!

Smithereens said...

Great review! Sounds so great that I immediately went to Bookmooch to order a copy (sadly only in French)!

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, I think it's the critics who look down on genre fiction, while we writers know how good it can be. Such a disjunction between critics and writers/readers, huh? That's why I'm so happy the blogosphere came along to open up the book review process to those other than critics.

Susan, yes, I do think North American writers think we'e living in a new era in which racism is dead (well, except Black writers and writers of other ethnicities). In actuality, it is alive and well, just gone undercover, which is almost more dangerous. Someone needs to write a book about that.

Kate, you're welcome, and good luck digging!

Smithereens, wow. I'm impressed that it was translated into French. Enjoy it!

Shelley said...

Great "elusive discussion!" I'm intrigued, and I will never pick up any hitchhikers.