The Expendable Man is a novel about race, though you realise that only some way in.
Race explains everything: the protagonist’s curious circumspection, a reserve amounting almost to fear, even the way others treat him.
It is the early ‘60s. On driving to Phoenix for a family wedding, Hugh gives a lift to Iris, a girl who he guesses is a teenage runaway. She is later found dead and it comes about that Hugh is suspected of her murder. To prove his innocence, he must play PI to get to the real killer.
What complicates matters considerably is that Hugh is black, meaning that he is not only a suspect as far as the murder is concerned but – as the title has it – ‘expendable’. No one will lift a finger to help if he goes down for it.
One of the strengths of Dorothy B. Hughes’ final novel is that her protagonist is not a helpless victim, the clichéd poor and downtrodden black man. He is a professional man, a member of the black middle class, with a medical career ahead of him. Despite this, Hugh suffers from the debilitating and distorting effects of racial prejudice. Every day he meets with some petty humiliation or another. Yet he keeps his humanity and capability for compassion. At one point Hugh reflects on the contrast between the preparations made for his sister’s wedding and the fate of the young woman who had hitched a ride with him:
The long table was festooned with sweet white flowers. Spire white candles pointed their pale flames. Clusters of white camellias were at each setting. All of this for Clytie, secure, happy Clyte. And in a cold and dark place, a girl who’d never had anything lay unwanted, unknown; lay dead. (62)
There is nuance also where the police officers are concerned. Only one is a full-on, bigoted hater, irredeemably racist. Another one, you might say, is pragmatic in his prejudices: he uses race as a heuristic, there is an assumption of guilt but he can be dissuaded. Still another police officer is fair – though scrupulously so, mind; he dishes out no favours.
Hughes’ best known novel, In a Lonely Place, was made into a terrific film noir by Nicholas Ray; but this one is, if anything, superior to it. As a mystery, it satisfies; and it also gives the reader a compelling portrait of a particular time and place: Middle America during the era of the civil rights struggle. The Expendable Man is destined to endure and I’d affix the tag ‘classic’ to it with no qualms at all.
The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.