Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Ride the Pink Horse, by Dorothy Hughes

Canongate, 2002
originally published 1946
248 pp


(read earlier)

Dorothy Hughes was a writer for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect. Ride the Pink Horse is the third novel of hers that I've read, following The Expendable Man and In a Lonely Place, and quite frankly, she's never failed to wow me.  She is probably best remembered for her In a Lonely Place, since it went on to become a major film starring Humphrey Bogart, and I think that that book tends to eclipse her other work, which is a shame, especially in this case.  Ride the Pink Horse is one of the most intense books I've read recently, and while the plot is very simple, the book as a whole is definitely not.  Like Patricia Highsmith would do a few years later in her first book, Hughes manages to get us inside the head of her main character and keep us there for the duration.  No matter how much we may want out, it ain't happenin' until the last page is turned.

the author, from Women Crime Writer of the 1940s & 50s

The main character here, Sailor, has come from Chicago to what he calls a "hick town" along with his fellow bus passengers who he refers to as "yokels," "hayseeds" and "sheep."  He's here on a mission:  his old boss he calls the Sen, aka "the dirty, double-crossing, lying whoring Senator Willis Douglas,"   had set up his wife's murder, a guy was arrested and convicted by the Sen's testimony, and was then killed himself.  There are only two people who know what really happened to the Sen's wife, and Sailor, who is the other one, had been paid off.  The problem is that Sailor was given only a third of what he was owed, so now he's come to collect the rest.  He's tired, a mess in rumpled clothes after traveling forever, and when he hits the streets, he comes face to face with his first dilemma: there is nowhere to stay  in the town because it's the time of Fiesta.  After being told repeatedly at hotel after hotel that there are no rooms, he is forced to count on a low-end hotel "next door to a pool hall," where he was sure they'd take him in.  Again -- nothing available.  As he walks toward the La Fonda Hotel where the Sen is staying, he's a  "ashamed" to ask for a room, since  "it was class," and "He wasn't class."  His anger grows -- he blames his bad luck on the Sen, resentful and envious that he was "Playing it big, fine clothes, fine car, fine hotels, society blondes."   The money he'd get from the Sen would help him start a life where he would be somebody and "live like a prince,"  -- the plan is to set up his own business in Mexico and "get himself a silver blonde with clean eyes."  In fact, knowing that the Sen got a $50,000 payout from his wife's life insurance, Sailor decides that he'll demand more money, and figures the Sen can't refuse.   Vowing not to be put off any longer, he plans on doing his business and getting out of this town the next day.  Of course, since this is a noir novel, it's not going to be that simple -- and things begin to get complicated when Sailor discovers that the Chicago cop in charge of the Senator's wife's killing is also in town.

While the plot seems simple, the book is actually quite complex.  I could seriously talk to anyone about this novel for hours just because there's so much here.  Sailor is used to being wronged, used to having doors slam in his face, used to taking a back seat to others, and this has caused to him to become a hateful, spiteful person. His hate extends from people of "class"  to people he thinks are beneath him -- the "spics" for example, as he labels the Mexicans who have come to the town for Fiesta. However, he is surprised to find  that these people are the only ones in the entire town who actually show him a modicum of kindness. He strikes up an acquaintance with a Mexican man whom he calls "Pancho Villa," who runs the old merry-go-round with the pink horse. Pancho offers him a place to sleep, companionship and other help. Sailor also meets a young Native American girl called Pila,  who reminds him of his own past and he does what he can to help her maintain her innocence and her childhood.

   Hughes uses the words "loss of identity" and "trapped" more than once here in describing Sailor's inner fears -- he is a man who wants to be somebody, and now that the opportunity is so close he can taste it,  he aims to take it and let nothing stand in his way. He feels himself an "outsider who'd wandered into this foreign land; all he had to do was finish his business and get out."  For him, the town is an
 "alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even the cool-of-night smell unfamiliar"
that's causing him "panic,"
"The panic of loneness; of  himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity." 
  But first he has to collect from the Sen and deal with the cop MacIntyre,  a man Sailor actually respects, but when it comes to giving Sailor advice, he isn't in the mood to hear it.  The Sen, MacIntyre and Sailor eventually find themselves the players in what will be a three-way game of "cat and mouse" , where only one of them can come out the winner.

The titular pink horse, as I said comes from the merry-go-round -- which is a great metaphor for Sailor's life and the future he so desperately wants. How that is I'll leave to others to discover, but to reiterate, this is definitely NOT a book where plot takes center stage. It is not a full on action-packed thriller, and it moves a bit slowly because Hughes invests her time in her people rather than just focusing on crime -- just my kind of book. There are a lot of racial slurs in this book, so beware -- it's very ugly, but then again, I just sort of accept  that writers of the 1940s didn't write with modern sensibilities in mind.

Hughes is an excellent writer, and in my opinion, she holds her own against  any male author of the time, making it a complete shame that she is not more widely read or appreciated.  For readers of vintage fiction written by women, it is an absolute must; I also recommend it for readers of classic noir.  I loved this book.

Friday, May 19, 2017

*an 1840s double feature: A Murky Business, by Honoré de Balzac and The First Detective: The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories, by Edgar Allan Poe

Well, I am so scatterbrained at the moment that I can't remember where exactly I'd read that I shouldn't miss Balzac's A Murky Business (Une Ténébreuse Affaire) as part of examining crime literature of the 19th century, but it really doesn't matter.

Penguin, 1981
originally published 1841
223 pp

In his Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Julian Symons writes that 
"The crime story as a literary form has developed alongside other fiction in a way shaped largely by social events, and its course has run roughly like this..." (283)
and proceeds to describe six different categories in the "progression."  The first of these is about "crime as a form of radical social protest," and here Symons mentions "Godwin, Lytton, Balzac." In this group, he says, "the criminal is seen as a hero, or a victim of social injustice."  Spot on for all three.  Balzac also has an entry in Encylopedia of Mystery and Detection (eds. Chris Steinbrunner & Otto Penzler), telling us that
"Balzac had no affection for the police..and never presented a detective sympathetically; on the other hand, criminals and murderers are often the heroes of his books." (18/19)
Balzac was also a close friend of Vidocq, and according to Graham Robb's 2004 London Review of Books take on Vidocq's memoirs, he used to "pump" Vidocq "for information on organized crime and political espionage."

It's 1803, and Napoleon is poised to crown himself  Emperor before beginning his long European campaigns.  A "royalist plot" has supposedly been discovered and  two police officials (Peyrade and Corentin) seek four noblemen who are accused of being behind it. By their own machinations, Peyrade and Corentin (who are noted in the introduction as "perfect examples of the cunning and malevolent police spy"), carry out what can only be called a miscarriage of justice by setting up these four men along with an estate steward to be framed for a crime that merits the death penalty.  I think that's about all I'll say -- a) it's way more complicated than just that and b) well, it's a good historical fiction novel that covers political intrigue that deserves a full reading.  As for how it stands up as a crime novel, well, Herbert J. Hunt in the intro does note that "We may find some fault" in how it fares as a "whodunit," citing three major issues re various plot elements, but concludes by saying that "it may be accepted as a fair example of an early mystery story...," and I have to concur.  There is certainly a mystery to be found in and among the police machinations here, one which is not fully solved until just toward the end.  More importantly though, the book reveals much about the courts and the system of justice of the time -- and is very much worth reading.


And now, to what is supposed to be the grandaddy of all modern detective fiction, I turn to the three stories by Poe featuring his detective C. Auguste Dupin in Leonaur's The First Detective: The Complete Auguste Dupin Stories.  

Leonaur Books, 2009
131 pp

Oh dear. With this book I have once again become that fish swimming against the tide of opinions of practically everyone else who's read these three stories contained in this book, the sum total of Poe's Dupin stories. While I get their importance in the history of detective/crime fiction, quite frankly, this book bored me silly.   I love Poe's gothic/supernatural-ish works to be sure; his somewhat cryptic Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was weird but kept me flipping pages, but I just can't stand Auguste Dupin nor do I care for Poe's writing here. 

 First in this collection is the blockbuster "Murders in the Rue Morgue," followed by "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," and last comes "The Purloined Letter." All of these stories reflect  Dupin's method of  "ratinocination, a cerebral method of combining intellect, logic, imagination and the transference of self into the mind of the criminal," (7), and I sort of get it in the first and last stories, but what killed me was reading "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt."  Evidently, Poe's logic behind writing it was that he wanted to tackle the real-life case of the murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers; as he notes, 
"The extraordinary details which I am now called upon to make public, will be found to form, as regards sequence of time, the primary branch of a series of scarcely intelligible coincidences, whose secondary or concluding branch will be recognized by all readers in the late murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, at New York." (54)
[As a sidebar, if you want to read about the case and Poe's interest, there's an interesting article from The Smithsonian here.]

In all three of these tales, it's Dupin's thought process that solves the crimes -- other than a brief visit to the crime scene in "Murders of the Rue Morgue" and a short visit to the home of the known thief in "The Purloined Letter," Dupin turns out to be the epitome of the armchair detective, letting his mind do all of the work.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's the way these tales are written that made me wish I'd saved the book for a night of trying to battle insomnia. Don't get me wrong -- I'm very used to reading nineteenth-century prose, and if I could survive Lytton's writing in Eugene Aram, well, Poe should have been a cakewalk.  However, "Marie Rogêt" just about did me in and in "The Purloined Letter," I counted a five-page rundown of "the particulars" of a search made by the Prefect of the Parisian police.  Five pages just noting every potential hiding place for the missing letter -- that's just uncalled for, really.

But, as I said, readers seem to love this book, so it's probably me.

I'd say give it a try simply because of its place in crime/mystery/detective fiction history -- now I can say been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt.  Not one of my favorites at all this year.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Death Going Down, by María Angélica Bosco

Pushkin Vertigo, 2016
originally published as La muerte bajo en ascensor, 1955
translated by Lucy Greaves
151 pp


"What do you do when you're standing in front of a painting? You adopt different positions until you get the best perspective."

Originally published in 1955, Death Going Down begins with Pancho Soler's return to his apartment building on Calle Santa Fe in Buenos Aires in the wee hours of the morning -- at two o'clock to be precise.  He's a bit smashed, nauseous, and unsteady on his feet, but all of that changes when he sees that there's a dead woman  in the elevator.  Now he's alert and really shook up.  Luckily he doesn't have to face it alone -- just moments after his gruesome discovery, he is joined by another tenant arriving home, a Doctor Adolfo Luchter.  Luchter realizes that the police will have to be called in, and that the victim seems to have been poisoned.  Thus begins the investigation, but it won't be easy for the detectives to unravel this one -- with six floors of occupants, there are certainly plenty of suspects from which to choose.  The investigators certainly have their work cut out for them, since the apartment building houses a number of  people who harbor a variety of secrets that they are reluctant to divulge.  Yet, as Inspector Ericourt notes, "There is always a truth, even if it's hidden." His task is to find it.

While Death Going Down works along the lines of a police procedural/detective novel, it is neither a cut-and-dried nor a routine detective story. After finishing it, I have to say I was surprised not only at the identity of the murderer but also at the assumptions I made as a reader while following the case.  When I turned the last page, it dawned on me just how very clever the author had been here precisely in how she used reader expectations while developing this story.  The book is well worth reading for several reasons (including the fact that the apartment building is home to a number of European refugees from World War II - very nice move), but for me it was all about the fact that I was completely caught off guard while expecting one thing and ending up with  something completely different. Sorry to sound so cryptic, but I really don't want to divulge anything.

The story moves a bit slowly and may not be for readers who like fast-paced crime; it's really not cozy material, and it's not at all your average police procedural. However, it's quite good, nicely done, and as I said, the solution threw me for a loop.  Suffice it to say that any author who can do this in a whodunit earns my great respect, since I've been reading mystery/crime novels since I was about five.

  From the back-cover blurb I learned  that María Angélica Bosco was known in her day as "the Argentinian Agatha Christie," but I have to say that her writing style (at least as evidenced here)  is most definitely her own.  Readers of translated crime fiction really do not want to pass this one by.