Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Expendable Man

Dorothy B. Hughes' 1963 suspense novel is one of the best books I've read this year.

I recently re-read In A Lonely Place, which contains one of noir's all-time unreliable narrators. The narrator in The Expendable Man is supremely reliable: it's the world around him that shifts and changes and spirals out of control.

I wasn't familiar with the plot reveal, and if you aren't either, do yourself a favor and ignore everything written about the book until after you've read it. Otherwise you'll rob yourself of a nice gasp at about page 60. (All you need to know is that the plot concerns a doctor, Hugh Densmore, who picks up a hitchiker and is later suspected of her murder when her corpse floats up in a canal a few days later.) But it wasn't just the reveal that got me, it was the incredible tenseness and tautness that Hughes sustains throughout the whole book. After I read In A Lonely Place, I liked Hughes. After Expendable Man, I love her. In this novel, Hughes creates a multi-layered narrative where the unsaid hovers over every scene. Take for instance the book's opening sentence: "Across the tracks, there was a different world." A simple sentence, on the surface.

But there's so much going on below the surface. 

I was so impressed with this book that I actually sat down and parsed the entire thing, creating a beat sheet for every chapter (yes, I have a life, don't worry; this is just something writers do). And what I found was an incredibly structurally sound procedural. All detective or suspense novels must of course have something to move the plot forward in every beat (with occasional rests) and Hughes does this masterfully. Where she surpasses the average novel is in having an added dose of tension in every beat: when Hugh and Ellen, his potential love interest, go to speak to Hugh's lawyer, he wonders about the lawyer's motives, and suspects him of flirting with Ellen right under his nose. When Hugh goes to a wedding, he sits there wondering if the police will burst in at any moment. It's classic Hitchcockian suspense -- we see the gun under the table and we're squirming right along with Hugh Densmore.

There's also an admirable structural unity to the novel, with Hugh's worst problems arising out of the very things that makes him who is he is. This keeps the novel looping in on itself, and repeatedly puts Hugh in more and more danger. His kindness gets him into trouble, his reticence puts him in even deeper. Early on in the story Hugh makes a series of tactical blunders that just made me want to scream at him but alas, Hugh is Hugh. And all you can do is sit there and watch while he makes everything worse until he finally digs himself out.

That's another part of the book's beauty: the one thing that got Hugh into so much trouble in the first place was an act that anybody is capable of. Anyone could pick up a hitchhiker, and that quotidian quality, that incredibly tiny moment of questionable judgment, makes it easy to identify with Hugh. I love a story where ordinary people paint themselves into corners and no good deed goes unpunished. And to pull it off the way Dorothy Hughes did, well... I stand in awe.

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