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Dorothy B. Hughes

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  • b_ergang
    From the Philadelphia Inquirer: Posted on Sun, Aug. 01, 2004 Feminist Press resurrects works by 40s queen of pulp fiction Reviewed by Marietta Dunn The
    Message 1 of 4 , Aug 1, 2004
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      From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

      Posted on Sun, Aug. 01, 2004

      Feminist Press resurrects works by '40s queen of pulp fiction

      Reviewed by Marietta Dunn

      The Blackbirder
      By Dorothy B. Hughes
      The Feminist Press. 235 pp. $12.95

      In a Lonely Place
      By Dorothy B. Hughes
      The Feminist Press. 250 pp. $14.95

      Tough guys and even tougher gals populated the pages of pulp novels,
      those cheaply produced, wildly popular mass-market paperbacks sold
      in the '30s, '40s and '50s. Readers could buy 'em, zip through 'em,
      and toss 'em.

      A fair number of these paperbacks with the come-hither covers were
      tense and turbulent crime novels chockablock with double-crosses,
      triple-crosses, hidden identities, and almost unbearable
      psychological suspense. Even though they were throwaways, the
      writing was sometimes the kind that stayed with you.

      Most of us know the kings of the pulps: James M. Cain and Jim
      Thompson. But how many know that there were women writers who were
      just as much in thrall to the dark side of human nature? The
      Feminist Press at the City University of New York has set out to
      remind us with its Femmes Fatales series. And who better to be
      rediscovered than Dorothy B. Hughes, a onetime poet who turned out
      14 classic pulps beginning in 1940?

      The Feminist Press has reprinted two of Hughes' books: The
      Blackbirder, a story of espionage, set in 1943, during the grimmest
      days of World War II, and In a Lonely Place, a noir serial-killer
      novel, written in 1947. These books may be six decades old, but
      Hughes had an atmospheric writing style and psychological insights
      that make them seem almost modern.

      Though The Blackbirder is told from a woman's point of view and In a
      Lonely Place through the eyes of a male murderer, the books share a
      sense of menace, paranoia, and barely repressed violence that seeps
      into every paragraph. What they also have in common is women
      characters who, in the end, are smart and strong and brave in the
      face of the most horrific dangers. Hughes' women aren't scheming
      hussies, as Cain or Thompson might have written them. They are
      heroes.

      In The Blackbirder, Julie Guille, a rich American expatriate, has
      fled Paris for New York, on the run from her uncle (a Nazi
      sympathizer) and the Nazis themselves. She has entered the United
      States illegally, and when an acquaintance is murdered, she hardly
      knows where to turn, fearing that she will be blamed. The novel is
      an exercise in controlled panic as Julie is tracked by men who may
      be FBI agents or who may be the enemy in disguise. The book offers
      no exposition; it just plunges the reader into Julie's world, where
      no one can be trusted, and treachery and death are everywhere she
      looks.

      The plot may sound creaky, but the writing lifts it out of the
      ordinary as Julie escapes New York, taking a cross-country train
      west, where she hopes to hook up in Santa Fe with "the blackbirder,"
      who flies refugees to Mexico and safety. The book is awash in mind
      games: Is Julie fleeing toward salvation or toward destruction? Is
      the "gray man," who seems to be everywhere, a potential friend or
      foe? Julie's desperation is etched into every line of the story as
      she tries to get away from her enemies:

      The wind was moaning against the door. She stood inside for a last
      moment, dreading the plunge into the vicious night. Already there
      might be someone waiting outside. She opened the door, stepped
      through, pulled it tight against the wind's struggle to push it wide
      again. She saw no one, no shadows. She couldn't run for it, snow was
      furry about her ankles, wind flung ice pellets on her face to impede
      her. She could only push, stagger on, hoping, praying to reach her
      goal... . Her breath was whimpering, no one could hear that, not
      above the wind.

      In a Lonely Place's Dix Steele isn't running from the terrors of
      World War II as Julie is; he is carrying them with him. But the
      former war pilot gets no quarter from Hughes for his suffering. He's
      a good-looking fellow who's been a slacker all his life; yearning to
      be rich, hating the uncle who could shower him with money but who
      keeps him on a short leash. Dix has drifted out to California from
      the East. And what he's brought with him, besides his taut nerves
      and his indolent lifestyle, is a penchant for murder. Once a month,
      when Dix is overwhelmed by his needs, he hides himself in the night
      fog that curls through the beaches and canyons of Los Angeles. And
      when a lone young woman comes along, he rapes and strangles her:

      The water was the voice of a girl, a voice hushed by fear, repeating
      over and over, no... no... no. Fear wasn't a jagged split of light
      cleaving you; fear wasn't a cold fist in your entrails; fear wasn't
      something you could face and demolish with your arrogance. Fear was
      the fog, creeping about you, winding its tendrils about you, seeping
      into your pores and flesh and bone. Fear was a girl whispering a
      word... a small word you refused to hear although the whisper was a
      scream in your ears... .

      But Dix's luck, if you can call it that, is about to run out. Sure,
      he's able to string along an old war buddy who's now an L.A. cop,
      even conning his pal into taking him to one murder scene. Dix loves
      living on the edge, and the excitement of playing cat-and-mouse with
      the police only adds to the thrill that he gets from the kill. Then,
      six murders in, he meets Laurel Gray, a voluptuous redhead in his
      complex, and he falls hard for her. While the L.A. cops can't seem
      to crack the case, could the gorgeous and tough-minded Laurel prove
      to be Dix's downfall? Laurel gets under his skin in a way that few
      have, and when she suddenly disappears, his already shaky stability
      begins to crumble even further.

      Hughes (1904-1993), a Missouri native who was a transplant to Santa
      Fe, writes with an exquisite sense of time and place. She captures
      the rootlessness of both Julie and Dix in surroundings where they
      are the interlopers. Hughes makes that clear, whether she's writing
      about the mountains of New Mexico (Julie "didn't like the mountains.
      The unyielding, unholy mass of inert matter dwarfed human mind and
      spirit.") or the artificiality of California to Dix the Easterner
      (the patio at Dix's place "was a stage set; a stagy stage set... .
      By day, the pool was sky blue, it was tiled in that color... . By
      night it was moonlight blue. Two spotlights... made certain of
      that.") Julie and Dix, surrounded as they are by strangers in
      strange settings, are both "in a lonely place." But the self-reliant
      Julie is an agent for good, while Dix is an agent for all that is
      evil. Though the outcomes of the two stories are very different,
      Hughes tells both with equal polish and with great style - two
      novels rushing forward on pure adrenaline.

      With the indisputable quality of Hughes' books in mind, the question
      is: In pulp novels, does the gender of the writer really matter?
      Certainly not in the integrity of the work. But, sadly, in its
      availability. Go to a bookstore and ask for Thompson or Cain, and
      many of their books will be for sale. But little of Hughes' work is
      in print today.

      All praise to the editors at the Feminist Press for reprinting these
      two volumes. Now let's get even more of this queen of pulp fiction
      back on the shelves.
    • Xavier Lechard
      I read only one book by Hughes - The Expendable Man - and though I felt concerned by the theme, I also have to say it didn t do much for me. Hughes indeed
      Message 2 of 4 , Aug 1, 2004
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        I read only one book by Hughes - "The Expendable Man" - and though I
        felt concerned by the theme, I also have to say it didn't do much for
        me. Hughes indeed had a gift for sharp characterization, but her
        plotting was weak, verging on pretext. A lot of critics noticized
        that fact, often treating it as minor, but as someone thinking plot
        is the main thing - or at least one of the main things - in mystery
        fiction, it does bother me much. I had "In A Lonely Place" on my
        shelves for years, started it several times, but was never able to
        read it. So to "The So-Blue Marble". I guess Hughes is just not for
        me.

        Friendly,
        Xavier
      • juryboxer
        This is a bit off topic because Hughes was in no way a Golden Age- style writer, belonging more to the hardboiled or thriller school. But neither was she a
        Message 3 of 4 , Aug 1, 2004
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          This is a bit off topic because Hughes was in no way a Golden Age-
          style writer, belonging more to the hardboiled or thriller school.
          But neither was she a pulp writer, since she did not write for the
          pulp magazines, nor did she write for the early paperback original
          publishers, whose output is often seen as an extension of the pulps.
          I reviewed the two books (both of which I think are very good) in an
          article in THE WEEKLY STANDARD's Summer Reading issue (July 5/July 12
          2004), in which I also cover recent reprints of Metta Fuller Victor,
          Anna Katharine Green, and Lucy Cores (the latter two are at least
          marginally GA, bringing me back to topic). The main thrust of the
          article is to counter the revisionist history that claims American
          women mystery writers were downtrodden and unappreciated before the
          1970s and 1980s.

          --- In GAdetection@yahoogroups.com, "b_ergang" <bergang@o...> wrote:
          > From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
          >
          > Posted on Sun, Aug. 01, 2004
          >
          > Feminist Press resurrects works by '40s queen of pulp fiction
          >
          > Reviewed by Marietta Dunn
          >
          > The Blackbirder
          > By Dorothy B. Hughes
          > The Feminist Press. 235 pp. $12.95
          >
          > In a Lonely Place
          > By Dorothy B. Hughes
          > The Feminist Press. 250 pp. $14.95
          >
          > Tough guys and even tougher gals populated the pages of pulp
          novels,
          > those cheaply produced, wildly popular mass-market paperbacks sold
          > in the '30s, '40s and '50s. Readers could buy 'em, zip through 'em,
          > and toss 'em.
          >
          >
        • b_ergang
          I confess to knowing Hughes only from the film version of IN A LONELY PLACE, which definitely doesn t follow the premise of the novel as described in the
          Message 4 of 4 , Aug 1, 2004
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            I confess to knowing Hughes only from the film version of IN A
            LONELY PLACE, which definitely doesn't follow the premise of the
            novel as described in the review, but which is a dandy piece of noir
            anyway.

            I have a paperback copy of RIDE THE PINK HORSE I've yet to read.

            Best,
            Barry
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