‘The Expendable Man’ is one of my favourite Persephone books – it’s a pitch perfect thriller which I found unbearably tense and almost equally thought provoking. It has one of the best opening sequences of any book I’ve ever read and is generally a cracking good read that I can highly recommend. It was also my first brush with Dorothy B. Hughes and ever since I’ve been vaguely looking out for her books.
Some cursory research revealed that Hughes was a reasonably prolific writer of Noir fiction and that most of her books are in print one way or another and so I did precisely nothing about it until I picked a second hand copy of ‘The Blackbirder’ which I was quite excited about and then proceeded not to read for a couple of months. However a combination of the weather which has been begging for something a little bit Noir, and just finishing Trollope’s Dr Thorne and wanting a total change of pace, made this feel like a good time to pick it up again.
‘The Blackbirder’ was written in 1943 and is set about the same time; it starts in a New York rathskeller then careers across the country ending in Santa Fe. The heroine Julie, a refugee from occupied Paris, is running for her life from the Nazi’s, from her family, and from the FBI. She keeps bumping into a grey man who claims to be a recuperating RAF pilot, but may be Gestapo, or possibly FBI. There are also a couple of corpses – they may have been Nazi’s, or they may just have been standing between Julie and her pursuers either way she has to keep moving before the police get involved. Oh and there’s a diamond necklace and of course the Blackbirder himself – a shadowy figure who’ll smuggle you in or out of Mexico for a price.
If that sounds confusing it was. In another mood this book would have appealed far more to me, but a mix of high expectations and a head full of Barchester affairs didn’t do it any favours. The hard boiled style felt almost like parody which is unfair because it isn’t, but I do think it’s a bit of an odd beast born out of a specific time and place in history. Julie the heroine is a good example of this; bought up as Julie Guille niece of the Duc de Guille (a sneaky collaborator) she is also Juliet Marlebone heiress to her father’s fabulous fortune (which the Duc has designs on). She uses both identities and despite having fled Paris alone and unaided at the age of 19, crossing Europe on foot whilst evading the Gestapo, escaping to Havana, and then being smuggled into the USA the best part of 3 years later it seems she can’t leave her room without bumping into an old acquaintance, none of whom fail to recognise the fashionable young thing in her present guise of a poor and badly dressed refugee.
Julie thinks nothing of raiding a corpse for possibly incriminating evidence, travels with her toothbrush in case she needs to make a run for it, can fly, shoot, likes to sing whilst she irons, can look glamorous with the change of a hat, is not put off by finding herself trapped in a house full of Nazi’s in a Santa Fe blizzard, has no compunction about stealing cars, and can expertly knock out a rival with a torch. Americans don’t seem to expect much of their women.
Now reading all that back I find myself thinking that it sounds brilliant, just my cup of tea, but I would have liked this better if the paranoia had been taken down a peg or two, and if there hadn’t been quite so many plot twists. Not knowing which side someone is on is one thing, but there are too many contradictory explanations from the author and far, far, to many coincidences for me to enjoy the whole thing at face value. It does make me wonder however just how concerned Americans were about fifth columnists and what their home front was like. I’m very used to thinking that the war didn’t touch the USA in anything like the way it touched Europe but ‘The Blackbirder’ has made me think that perhaps I should bother to find out a bit more about it.