Monday, March 14, 2011

Dorothy B. Hughes: Ghost of Honor

By Jeffrey Marks

This year, one of Left Coast Crime's Ghosts of Honor is Dorothy B. Hughes, one of my favorite authors. The conference is being held March 24 - 27 in Santa Fe. I’d love to be leaving the cold behind to head for New Mexico but, alas, I’m going to be admiring from afar. I sent off a basket of books to the conference, mainly novels by Hughes.

Hughes and I share bonds in the mystery world. First, she so very kindly offered her assistance to me when I was writing my biography of Craig Rice. I corresponded with her about Craig and their common bond of being women authors in the 1940s. Hughes shared stories of sitting on the front porch with Craig and Anthony Boucher, drinking lemonade and talking about books and reviews. She was generous with information that helped to round out Craig’s character.

After her death, I wrote about Hughes in Atomic Renaissance, devoting a chapter to her works, her Hollywood career, and her decision to give up writing to care for her family. Her last novel, The Expendable Man, is a work of art. For 50 pages, we see the nervous energy of the protagonist as he picks up a blonde who is later murdered. His anxiety is so palpable that you wonder as a reader why he’s so paranoid, until Hughes lets you in on his secret. I can’t tell you the secret, because it would spoil the novel, but it’s definitely worth reading for yourself. For a last novel, it was a wonderful way to go.

I was amazed at some of the fantastic works (Dread Journey, The Blackbirder and others) by Hughes that hold up 50 years after their publication. Of course, she is best known for In A Lonely Place, a masterpiece that is overlooked too often. It covers the anxiety and darkness of the men who have been taught to kill in World War II and who must return home to fit into a society that no longer appreciates that skill. If it wasn’t for the Bogart film, the book would likely not be remembered at all.

Finally, Hughes and I have one more bond in common. We’ve both written a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner. Her book in 1978 used significant parts of Gardner’s own memoirs, while mine is hoping to cement Gardner’s place in the genre with more analysis of his work in the field. Hers is done — and I am immensely jealous of that! I’m still writing the 1950s, but working to finish that decade in the next few weeks. And off to Mississippi in a few weeks for more research!

Jeffrey Marks is the award-winning author of Who Was That Lady? Craig Rice: Queen of the Screwball Mystery, Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s, and the Anthony Award-winning Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography. He is also the author of the U.S. Grant mystery series that includes The Ambush of My Name and A Good Soldier. Marks lives in Cincinnati.


Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Dorothy B. Hughes's _Expendable Man_ has been reprinted by Persephone Books:

Kaye George said...

I picked up my first book by her because my mother's maiden name was Dorothy Hughes. It was *Ride the Pink Horse* and it blew me away. I'm a HUGE fan of hers. You're so lucky to have had that connection!

Anonymous said...

Vera Caspary cited Hughes as one of the few mystery writers she liked. They were friends, too, and corresponded.