Mysterious Skin

The Expendable Man (New York Review Books Classics) BY Dorothy B. Hughes. edited by Walter Mosley. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 264 pages. $14.

DOROTHY B. HUGHES’S last novel, The Expendable Man (1963), seems at first to be the old story of the man with a guilty past, but it’s much more original and inventive than that. In one sense, it is an exercise in pure form, exploring the nouveau roman idea that what isn’t stated (the color of someone’s skin, for instance) doesn’t exist. It opens with a landscape: “Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand.” In some ways, this novel is all about landscape: who is allowed to inhabit it freely and who is not. A young doctor, driving from LA to Phoenix, seems nervous for a reason that remains at once obvious and occluded: He wants to stop at an air-conditioned drugstore, but is put off by “the size and temper of the invading young people” inside; at a nearby drive-in, none of the three waitresses offers him a menu; at dusk, the teenage hitchhiker he has stopped for hesitates—until she gets in, and the plot begins its descent.

Hughes started out as a poet—in 1931 her book Dark Certainty was included in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, a distinction that would also be awarded to Muriel Rukeyser, John Ashbery, and James Tate. The thrillers she went on to write are both a transmutation and a continuation of this early poetry. Style, rather than plot, defines and propels them. What is a crime? This is the question The Expendable Man poses, and it is, you realize, the question being hazily posed in every thriller, in that desperate search for clues and perps. Hughes, in offering what appears to be a classic narrative for our inspection, shows that noir may be the best literary instrument available for a real investigation of crime and punishment. You cannot think about crime without thinking about politics. On the plot’s surface, there is blood and lurid mayhem: a botched abortion, corrupt police. But the true crime is the background, the social assumptions that structure every move in the sequence—that gigantic, irreparable crime that is all the more violent for being hidden, so easy for the reader to ignore.

Adam Thirlwell’s latest novel is Lurid & Cute (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).