On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I am intrigued to note that this year is also the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dorothy B. Hughes’s final novel, The Expendable Man, in which race is an important factor.
Hugh Densmore is a young physician interning in Los Angeles. Driving one night across the desert to his grandparents’ home in Phoenix, he picks up, against his better judgment, a young female hitchhiker. Given the time of day and the deserted highway, Hugh fears she might otherwise be in danger.
Hugh is black, the young woman is white, and this is a racially divided America in the early sixties.
I don’t think I am giving too much away by describing the setup of the novel, though the author does craftily withhold this information at the outset. Instead, we see Hugh navigating this world: waiting while a waitress serves the white customers first, being heckled by a car full of rowdy teens.
The young woman—girl, really—calls herself Iris Croom. She is a self-centered, naïve runaway, oblivious to the danger she presents to Hugh by just being in the car with him.
Hugh, of course, is anxious to be free of Iris: he drives her to the bus station, lends her money for a ticket, gives her food. But his fate is bound up with the girl’s, and thus begins a taught, suspenseful, well-crafted mystery. The issues in the book are still with us today: racial profiling, unwanted pregnancies, social mobility.
Dorothy B. Hughes was a journalist from Missouri and a critic and novelist who made her home in New Mexico. Racial and social issues were persistent concerns for her. Her observations about people are astute and her characters are finely nuanced, and she credibly crosses the gaps of gender and race in presenting Hugh’s perspective.
Hughes’s criticism earned her an Edgar award and in 1978 she was named a Grand Master by MWA. The Expendable Man is her only novel still in print, though Sarah Weinman has included one of her short stories in the excellent anthology, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.