This is my review of The Expendable Man (New York Review Books Classics) by Dorothy B Hughes.
Hugh Densmore, a young American doctor on his way to his niece's wedding in Phoenix feels obliged, against his better judgement, to pick up a teenage hitchhiker. Who knows what will befall her if he does not? She proves to be both an unpleasant liar and a pathetic object of pity. When local newspapers report the discovery of a young girl's body in a canal, Hugh is convinced it belongs to the hitchhiker, and that the police will soon be knocking on his door. He is fatalistic, yet also determined not to spoil the wedding and to prove his innocence.
It is not until more than fifty pages in that the author delivers a master stroke by revealing a piece of information that stopped me in my tracks. Not only does it explain Hugh's previous almost paranoid fears, but completely alters the reader's perception of the situation. I was forced to look back to see if I had misread some details, but it was clear that I had made certain assumptions and was potentially as guilty of misjudgements as some of the characters in the book.
This book is partly a psychological crime thriller in which every step is developed in forensic detail. It is also a study of life in the western states of America in the early 1960s – the baking afternoon heat and traffic jams of Phoenix, the "startling growth" of the suburbs, the abrupt change from surfaced roads to rough tracks through the semi-desert landscape of "troglodyte rocks and spire cacti". Although Dorothy Hughes can be a little shaky on the flowering of romance, she is excellent on landscapes, cold starry nights and the burgeoning fast food culture as well as deeper issues in a world of racial prejudice and criminalisation of abortion.
The sustained sense of menace and very evident risk of Densmore being unjustly ruined, combined with occasional suspicions that he may go free at the end yet turn out to be a villain after all, make this a page turner. With so much suspense, it is perhaps inevitable that the final climax is a somewhat underwhelming, but overall this gripping tale deserves its recent revival. It stands the test of time as one of the best crime novels which everyone who enjoys this genre should read.