It gave him a queer feeling, as if he, not the Indians, were something strange.
A Chicago hood named Sailor steps off a bus, into a small desert border town preparing for a local fiesta and the festivities that go with it. Sailor’s looking for his former employer, the Sen, crooked and traitorous former-senator Willis Douglass. Sailor was the Sen’s personal secretary when the Sen’s wife was killed during an attempted robbery… but Sailor knows the truth, that the Sen ordered the hit so he could put the moves on the beautiful young daughter of an industrial baron. Before he jumps the border and flees into Mexico, Sailor wants one thing from the Sen: the money he was promised to keep his mouth shut, and then some. On both their tails is MacIntyre, a homicide detective seeking the truth so he can put the real killer behind bars. As fiesta rages on, the three men circle in a deadly dance of death, chasing their ever-illusive prey: truth, riches, revenge. But there can be few victors here, and the unwary will find only a shallow sandy grave.
Sailor is an interesting character, because of how unsavory he is: the novel’s filtered through the lens of his mind, revealing him as a spiteful, egotistical man who hates everyone and everything. In his head he rants and raves against this “stupid hick town” and its “spic” citizens, and seeing the happiness of the tourists and locals during fiesta just reinforces his hate. (The racism is a problematic inclusion, but much like with Hughes’ Dread Journey and its sympathetic portrayal of a black train porter, I found the novel’s presentation of the Latino and native characters much more sympathetic and balanced. When a character is biased against a group of peoples whom the author portrays in a very positive light, my understanding is that the protagonist is racist, not the novel.)
But there are a few exceptions to Sailor’s hate, aside from his respect of Detective MacIntyre. He begrudgingly allows himself to befriend the man he dubs Pancho Villa who runs the fiesta’s merry-go-round, and he tries to become the father-figure/guardian angel to a teenage Indian girl named Pila. Pila is a surrogate standing in for Sailor’s lost innocence, at a crossroads herself towards becoming a loose woman like her friends. And much as MacIntyre once tried to mentor Sailor and put him on the straight-and-narrow, Sailor tries to save Pila’s innocence, pushing her towards a road he himself was never willing to follow.
I’m not quite sure why Dorothy B. Hughes doesn’t rank higher in the noir pantheon; having read all of two books by her, I’m keen to proclaim her one of the finest noir writers. Her style is bleak and craggy and hardboiled to its core, layered with lyrical prose that’s nothing short of luminous magic; it’s as hardboiled as Jim Thompson or James Cain, with an evocative quality to its sparse dialogue and expressive prose that foreshadows Cormac McCarthy. Which is to say, she writes riveting stuff. The novel starts with a low, brooding sense of tension that intensifies as the novel moves down its three acts, offering reveries on race, religion, morality, and fate as Sailor approaches his final confrontation with the Sen. Like many other good noir from the era, this is less a portrait of a crime and more a portrait of a criminal, focusing on Sailor and showing him as more complex and multifaceted than he first appeared.
And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even the cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.
I can’t recommend Ride the Pink Horse enough; it’s a lightning-fast novel with breathtaking pacing and excellent depth, one of the most compelling novels I’ve read this year. It’s one of those novels I had to struggle to put down, because if I hadn’t, one easy chapter would have flowed into another and I’d have been up until dawn reading it. Hughes certainly could write circles against many lesser authors, and that she isn’t spoken of in the same way as Chandler or Hammett is a great crime, much as the fact that physical versions of this book have been out of print for fifteen years. In the world of bleak, destructive protagonists traveling dead-end streets, she holds her own with David Goodis and James M. Cain like few others. If you’ve read through the hardboiled bests of the ’40s and ’50s but have yet to read anything by Hughes, I recommend that you hasten to do so.
Motion Pictures Dept: Filmed in 1947, Ride the Pink Horse was one of the few directorial attempts by actor Robert Montgomery. I think it’s his best, offering some excellent cinematography such as the opening sequence, a single wordless long shot through the bus stop that tells more with visuals than narration could have. The film is full of excellent and very modern shots like this, such as a chilling knockout of a scene where Pancho is roughed up by thugs, filmed from the dizzying perspective of kids on the carousel circling the beating. It’s the same kind of radical cinematography shown in his adaptation of Lady in the Lake with its first-person perspective, only more effective and convincing.
The film changes many of the book’s details: Sailor and most of the supporting cast have their names and occupations changed; the blackmail scheme is much less sordid, removing some of the book’s surprise revelations or rendering them toothless; and the relationship between Sailor and Pila is flipped, where she sort of falls in love at first sight and becomes his guardian angel. Montgomery was never entirely convincing to me at playing tough guys, and here he is less effective as the protagonist than he was behind the camera. But the supporting cast picks up any slack; Thomas Gomez was nominated for Best Supporting Actor as Pancho, and Wanda Hendrix brings an otherworldly presence to Pila.
Despite those flaws, the film is still worth watching because of its vivid visuals and atmosphere, and I have to wonder what motion picture greatness Montgomery could have accomplished had Hollywood allowed him to build on them.
Title: Ride the Pink Horse
Author: Dorothy B. Hughes
First Published: 1946
What I Read: Open Road Media ebook, 2013
Price I Paid: $2 (#ebookdeal)
MSRP: all physical versions of out print / $7.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 184195277X / B00D00W8K2