‘The Expendable Man’ is the last novel written by Dorothy B. Hughes, published by the lovely Persephone Books. The company itself is worth a mention. Based in London, Persephone Books focuses on publishing novels and short stories written by women, with a specific focus on debut books and previously published books that are no longer in print. I must also mention here that Persephone Books creates extremely high quality texts.
This is a mystery that follows Hugh Densmore, a black interning doctor, as he travels to Phoenix, Arizona and happens to pick up a young hitchhiker…
It is a product of its time. There is quite a lot of discussion of abortion, which is considered irretrievably immoral. There is no wavering upon this point. I became quite annoyed with this, but that’s just me coming from my modern feminist perspective. However, I did find it interesting to look at abortion from a historical point-of-view.
I’m not sure whether it is initially made clear that Hugh is black – until his ethnicity becomes a plot-point, I didn’t think it was discussed particularly well. It was not apparent to me until Hugh was faced with racist comments. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this: Hughes could be stating that race is not a part of Hugh’s identity and character – or, at least, not until others decide that it should be. This is an interesting stance on race that other authors have taken (such as Neil Gaiman in ‘Anansi Boys’). Gaiman has stated that he did not explicitly describe the black characters in order for people to be faced with their assumption that all characters are white. However, when using this technique in ‘The Expendable Man’, I think that this could also imply that the only facets of race worth explicit discussion are the perils that black people face. There is also emphasis upon the close relationships in black families, but I did not think that this was treated as a positive facet of the black experience, but rather a lucky coincidence.
The writing itself is quite simple and easy to follow. I had hoped for slightly more stylistic experimentation, but ultimately I felt that it was a well-structured novel that creates great tension. The characters, especially Ellen Hamilton, are drawn quite well. Hugh I didn’t find all that interesting, but that’s not too unusual in this particular genre. Overall, I found this a very readable murder mystery which made interesting political points.
(And any Persephone Book is worth buying just for the cover and paper quality. Ooooh Lord they’re nice!!)