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.
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.