I love being able to start the year reviewing a novel that blew me away. Actually, it nearly finished me off, my heart was pounding at such an accelerated rate from start to finish. I wasn’t expecting that of a thriller written in 1963. Not at all.
*** Mild spoilers ahead ***
Set in Arizona, where segregation is a thing of the past, but racial prejudice most definitely is not, Hugh Densmore is in a precarious position. Driving up from LA, and despite his misgivings, he picks up a young white hitchhiker. From the moment she takes her position in the passenger seat, he knows he has just invited trouble into his life. Make that trouble with a capital T. Despite his best efforts to drop her by off safely, she keeps returning like a bad penny. Then just days after they arrive in Phoenix, her body is fished from a canal ….
Trouble is, he was the last person to see her alive.
Bigger trouble – she’d obviously just had an illegal and botched abortion, and Densmore is a doctor. Suddenly he’s in danger of being accused of illegal abortion and murder.
But the real TROUBLE is that the racist police just want to stitch the case up quickly.
Fortunately for Densmore the politics of the day hold them in check. Marshal Hackaberry wants everything done “legal”, much to the disgust of the ingrained racist officer, Veneer. This gives Densmore time to rally, but it is a real race against time. Thanks to his connections, he is able to retain the best (white) lawyer in town. The cat and mouse games between the lawyer and the police are eye-opening, but insufficient to clear Densmore completely. A third party is trying to frame him, and Densmore must undertake some dangerous investigations of his own, if his name is to be cleared and his future returned.
All this against a backdrop of a family wedding. The absolute contrast between the comfortable, loving family atmosphere, which Densmore does not want to disturb, and the seediness, hostility and antagonism in the nightmarish parallel world he is now inhabiting, could not be more defined. Hughes took some criticism for the cosiness of the middle-class milieu in which she set Densmore’s family. But, surely, by making her coloured family respectable, she shines a more penetrating light on the issue of racism.
My thanks to my fellow #tbr20 traveller, Richard (@caravanablog), for unconsciously prompting me to push this to the top of my TBR. I can’t stress how tense and suspenseful this was. Nor how it raised my hackles in places. Absolutely masterful. As soon as I complete the #tbr20 challenge, I’ll be reading more by Hughes.
P.S Link to an excellent essay in The New Yorker on The Expendable Man below. But it is full of spoilers ….