Obituary: Dorothy Hughes
Saturday 29 May 1993
I LAST saw Dorothy Hughes in New York five years ago at the annual prize-giving of the Mystery Writers of America. She was in her middle eighties, looked rather frail, used a stick, but when we were on a panel together she outperformed everybody in the speed of her responses, and above all her enthusiasm. Later we had lunch at the Carnegie Deli, where she ate not just her own enormous sandwich but part of her daughter's, talking all the time - about her large family, crime stories, the next visit to England which she never made.
Our friendship had been cemented nearly 20 years earlier, when I stayed in her home in the desert area of New Mexico for a weekend. Dorothy deterred me from going for a walk by casually mentioning that I should be careful of rattlesnakes, including one that lived beneath the house. Accordingly we spent a lot of time arguing about which crime writers were worth keeping on the shelves, and about the merits of Erle Stanley Gardner, around whom she was writing a book. The discussion was meaningful, because like me she was a crime reviewer, at first for an Albuquerque paper, later for the Los Angeles Times. She was one of the very few (Anthony Boucher and James Sandoe the others) who exercised decent standards of judgment at that time in America. Her visits to England then were yearly. She stayed always in Dolphin Square, and crammed more theatre-going and talk with crime writers into a few days than others do in weeks.
Her decade of intense activity as a novelist was the Forties, when she published 12 books. Most of them are tales of pursuit rather than mysteries, the themes (as in The Blackbirders, about illegal immigrants) often reflecting her liberal social sympathies. After the Forties there was only one straightforward thriller, The Davidian Report, and what is perhaps her best novel, The Expendable Man, about a black medical intern suspected of murdering a white hitchhiker.
Three of these novels became major films of the period. The Fallen Sparrow (1943) has John Garfield giving one of his most powerful performances as a Spanish Civil War veteran returned to New York. Ride the Pink Horse (1947) starred Robert Montgomery, and In a Lonely Place (1950) was directed by Nicholas Ray and had Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame as the chief players.
I never liked to ask Dorothy why she gave up writing fiction. She may have made enough money, may have thought like most crime writers she was producing too much too quickly, may have been a little disappointed by her own work. When I tried a couple of the books again a few years back they seemed lively and entertaining period pieces rather than landmarks in the genre. But she became a legend in her own country, as much for the vividness of her personality as for her work. In 1950 she received an Edgar Allan Poe award for her criticism, and in 1978 was made a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. Her critical sympathies were wide, generous, and did not diminish with age. She was always eager to acclaim and support new writers, of any nationality and any school. She would have been annoyed to miss this year's crop.
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