Ride the Pink Horse (1946) by Dorothy B Hughes

Hughes is an author I’ve known about for a while, but never tried. Eventually this title made its way into my TBR pile and spurred on by the inclusion of another Hughes’ title in the Reprint of the Year Awards Poll, I decided to give this story a go.

It is very much in the noir, hard boiled vein, with our protagonist only being known as Sailor. The sparse, Chandler-like prose, reminds us that he is a character who feels apt for the mean streets. As he gets off the busy bus into Santa Fe, we know he is in the crowd but not a part of it, finding everything beneath him, apart from the very opulent. A big fiesta is about to begin, but Sailor is not there for the festival, instead being determined to track down Senator Willis Douglass – his former boss, who has decidedly short changed him after their latest exploit. Yet whilst he has his eyes on the prize, another character comes into view, a copper called McIntyre, who is also on the senator’s trail. They might be on different sides of the law, but there is a friendly rivalry between them, though this soon turns into a deadly game of cat and mouse. As the carnival unfolds Sailor gets deeper and deeper into danger and it’s not long before his plans are taken out of his grasp.

Overall Thoughts

Regular blog readers will know that hardboiled novels are not my main reading fodder, so I have very little experience with them. Consequently I was quite surprised by how such a sparse writing style could equally lead to long passages on the fiesta setting – a style which I could see was endeavouring to engender a type of atmosphere, but which for me somewhat failed. The hardboiled school doesn’t have anything on the Queens of atmosphere, Rinehart and White. Also because of the writing style I didn’t expect the rather slow pace, in which very little happens for much of the time, (I’m pretty sure the first 50 pages are purely about Sailor trying to find a bed for the night). In some ways the level of plot activity in this book are more suited to a novella or long short story, rather than a 200 page novel.

But perhaps I am doing this book an injustice or missing its real purpose. As a crime novel I think it is less interested in producing an action packed plot and is more focused on character psychological, in particular that of Sailor. Themes of personal responsibility vs. fate when it comes to our actions, as well as class and other factors which contribute to a life of crime are abundantly present in the story. Sailor’s insecurities and troubled child hood weave their way through the text and in some ways they fuel and compel his actions, making him do whatever it takes to get the money he thinks he deserves, which in turn which will pay for the lifestyle he thinks he is entitled to. This approach to life contrasts a lot with that of McIntyre, who grew up with the same poverty background, but made good. Santa Fe is also a location which brings up the issue of race and nationality, with Spanish, English and Native Americans having to learn to live together in close quarters. Nationality status becomes almost relative and the idea of conquest crops up a lot. Sailor also has his first encounter with the Native American culture. Not the world’s most PC person, but it soon becomes apparent that the presence of such people unnerve him more than anything else, bringing up deeply buried fears and insecurities, in particular his feeling of not belonging anywhere or feeling alienated. For instance early on in the book it is said that ‘they looked at him as if he were some kind of specimen they hadn’t seen before […] It gave him a queer feeling, as if he, not the Indians, were something strange.’ Furthermore his relationship with Native Americans becomes further symbolic as the story progresses, especially with his interactions with a Native American teenager. Ironically in some ways he gives her advice which he should really take himself.

So perhaps not the world’s greatest read in some respects, but there are definitely elements to it which predate Patricia Highsmith’s more famous works, which explore the makeup of young criminals.

Rating: 3/5

20 comments

  1. I would not suggest Ride the Pink Horse to someone looking for a hardboiled read. Noir definitely. Ride the Pink Horse is about Sailor’s existential crises and his loss of identity, both noir themes. In the end, Sailor doesn’t know who he is. He is haunted by the black eyes of the Native Americans. When he looks into them, he sees the void where he he has no existence. Consider this passage, particularly the last two sentences:
    “He had known fear, real fear, the first time in his life as he’d stood there. He’d thought he’d known it before. Fear of the old man’s drunken strap, fear of the old woman’s whining complaints, fear of the cop and the clap and the red eyes of the rats that came out of the wall at night. Fear of death and hell. Those were real fears but nothing like the naked fear that paralyzed him before the tone woman. Because with other things he was himself, he could fight back, he had identity. Before her his identity was lost, lost in the formless terrors older than time.”

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  2. There is a mistype in my previous post. It should be “stone woman” and not “tone woman”. It refers to a stone statue he saw in the Art Institute in Chicago when he was a boy. The Native Americans in Sante Fe affect him with the same terror he experienced when looking at the statue. To flog Sailor’s existential crises a bit more, there is this passage:
    “…And without warning his eyes came against the eyes of Pila. He had the same shock he’d had last night when he first looked upon her. The same remembrance of terror, of a head of stone which reduced him to nonexistence. His first reaction was to turn away, not to recognize her. But he could not. She was there. She existed. He was the one without existence, the dream figure wandering in this dreadful nightmare.”

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  3. I do like hardboiled and noir, so I did like this one. Also the setting of Fiesta, since we have a Fiesta here in Santa Barbara. (We avoid it nowadays, but the scenes were reminiscent of earlier experiences when we first moved here.)

    The only other Hughes I have read so far is The Davidian Report (also known as The Body on the Bench). I liked that one too, probably more, Sort of a Cold War spy novel, and set in Hollywood and along Hollywood Boulevard, also nostalgic because my husband and I visited that area often early in our relationship.

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    • I would also recommend Hughes’ In A Lonely Place. In it, the protagonist, Dix Steele, is a returning veteran and misognyistic serial killer. Both Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place were made into good noir films though both stripped out what made the novels noir — in my opinion, your mileage may vary.

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  4. Points well taken in your review. The book reads like a series of fragments with social commentary, character self-introspection and story narrative interrupting each other. If you haven’t seen the 1947 movie with Robert Montgomery, I would recommend it. The screenwriters stripped out most of the “literature” and told a very tight story. The atmosphere in the movie seems more like a border town which adds to the menace. Actress Wanda Hendrix did a great job as Pilar and the movie is worth watching for the performances alone.

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    • I just saw it a couple weeks ago. I agree, though it will offend certain modern pecksniffs.
      The writers were Hecht and Lederer. The feel of the movie is not at all the feel I get from this review or the excerpts. But the movie is often quite different from the book. Certainly very different with Lonely Place (but both are excellent).

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      • Yes, that’s Wanda Hendrix as Pilsr. She gives an excellent performance but is not the Pilar from the book. I really disliked how she was portrayed at the end of the film. My personal favorite cast member is Thomas Gomez as Pancho. Talk about a real performance.

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  5. Hughes I think was a *crime* rather than *mystery* writer, with a strongly noir bent that sets her apart from other contemporary female crime writers. I once said to Jeffrey Marks’s agreement that hers was a bleaker continuation of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s work, and I stand by this description especially as I have recently learned that Hughes was a vocal Holding fan. Both started writing relatively conventional, strongly HIBK-flavoured mysteries before dropping the puzzle and branching out to character studies in the guise of crime stories.

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