Hugh Denismore, a privileged, young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, feels uneasy when he sees a group of redneck teenagers. Near the California-Arizona border, he reluctantly picks up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway, a girl he had seen with the group of teenagers. When she is found dead in Arizona a few days later, Denismore is the first person the police suspect.
The Expendable Man was first published in 1963, when the times were changing, and Hughes provides a glimpse of the rapidly developing Phoenix-Tempe-Scottsdale metropolitan area, an area dramatically different than it is today but not entirely unrecognizable. Because of the way Hughes includes us in her narrative, we’re able to observe and participate in the world she depicts, and if you’re familiar with Phoenix, you’ll love the details she provides and sweat a little over the society she depicts.
Throughout her career, Dorothy B. Hughes peeled back the veneer of a prosperous, self-absorbed, mid-century society. She did so by relying on the art of the reveal. She only ever told the reader as much as the reader needed to know, enough to move the narrative forward. While her descriptions remained fully and meticulously developed, she always knew where she’d placed her reader and what perspectives she’d contextualized.
The Expendable Man twists the conventions of the wrong-man narrative to draw readers into the mystery of the crime, and the mysteries of perhaps the greatest American crime, a crime in which we’re all implicated in one way or another.
Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) was an American mystery writer and critic. She published fourteen mystery novels including In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse. She was one of the first practitioners of Psychological Suspense and Noir, predating Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Ruth Rendell. She was a master of her craft, and her work stands up against anything written before or since.