Power corrupts. We know this, right?
Willis Douglass, one of the main characters from Ride the Pink Horse— Dorothy B. Hughes’s superb 1946 work of noir fiction—embodies the maxim. Douglass, a former Illinois Senator, was once a noble enough man to take in a Chicago street punk named Sailor, put the kid through some schooling at a city university, and later employ him as his confidential secretary. But something happened to Douglass’s soul over his time representing the good people of Illinois from his Washington, D.C. office. He turned so corrupt that by the time he left Washington, he had a team of bad boys in his corner, to the point where he carried on more like a mob boss than an elected politician. Along the way, Sailor became just another one of Douglass’s henchmen aiding him in his various dirty deeds. And when Douglass, now an ex-Senator living back in Chicago, decides life would be more convenient if his wife were dead, Sailor is very much a part of the multi-layered plot he hatches.
Douglass’s wife does get killed. I’m not ruining any of the book’s suspense by revealing that. However, several aspects of the ex-Senator’s plan—both in the murder itself and in how he wants the police to believe it happened—go awry, and all of that intrigue, I will leave for readers to discover on their own. Suffice to say that after the dust settles, Sailor very much wants to have a word with his boss.
Sailor finds out from a newspaper column that Douglass is vacationing in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and has been seen there with an attractive socialite on his arm. So much for grieving over lost loved ones, huh? Well, Douglass’s tryst with his new lady friend is about to get interrupted, due to Sailor getting himself a bus ticket with the words Santa Fe on the chit.
But while Sailor goes to New Mexico meaning to settle a score with his former benefactor, he finds a couple surprises awaiting him there. One, he arrives just as Fiesta—the yearly, week-long celebration, wherein the locals celebrate Spain’s 17th century recapturing of the territory from the Pueblo people—is getting underway. He can’t get a room, and everywhere he turns in his pursuit of the Senator, some aspect of the festival is in his way. Two, he finds that McIntyre, head of the homicide bureau from back in Chi, arrived there ahead of him. McIntyre has known Sailor since the latter’s reform school days. And McIntyre knows the ex-Senator well, in fact was hired by a reform-minded police commissioner, who wants him to clean the city of people like Douglass. Sailor doesn’t know if McIntyre is after him, or Douglass, or both of them. And McIntyre isn’t showing his cards. The chess match the three men get into with each other is one of the driving forces of the brilliant book.
Another of those forces is the Fiesta itself. As Sailor stalks Douglass, and McIntyre keeps a close watch on both of them, the tenseness in all of that is offset by all the goings-on of the big, tawdry, public party. Hughes’s deft touch as a writer is put to great use, as she describes the gaudy street scenes at the same time that she follows the progressively intense interactions between the three men from Chicago. Here’s a few examples of her third person narrator’s descriptions of the story’s two-tiered events:
Sailor circled the paddock to where he could crane up to the roof. The Mariachi were singing, strumming and beating their crude wooden guitars. “Guadaljara . . . ‘ they sang. The shouting proud song of the homeland. They wore enormous straw sombreros and white peasant suits with red sashes, woven rugs over their shoulders. Their faces were carved of wood, brown, wrinkled, impassive. The faces of cutthroats, but they carried guitars not machetes; they made fierce music not war. This was Fiesta. The solid mass went wild but the Mariachi showed no emotion. They sang again, a wild, cruel song, baring their teeth, pounding with their knuckles on the gourd-like guitars, sweeping the catgut strings with maniacal speed.
He stopped at one of the thatched booths and asked. The wizened woman could barely speak English. Her head was bound in a blue turban and there were chile stains on her white apron. ‘No beer,’ she said. Her smile was toothless. ‘Pop.’ He didn’t want pop but the cold moisture clinging to the bottles made his dry throat ache. He bought a Coke and he drank it standing there, everyone around him speaking in a foreign tongue, Spanish-speaking. He felt suddenly lonesome, he who was always separate and never lonesome. He felt uprooted, he who had no roots but the Chicago streets; a stranger in an alien place. He finished the pop and walked on.
The story focuses squarely on Sailor. It is his movements and thoughts Hughes’s narrator keeps a bead on throughout. Sailor is revealed to be a mean-spirited, monomaniacal, bigoted gringo. He thinks so little of the Santa Fe denizens that he can’t be bothered to find out the actual name of a man who befriends him and helps him in several different ways—he suffices with calling the guy “Pancho Villa.” And he uses the word “spic” casually when talking to the residents. Yet Hughes presents Sailor as a complex man, by having him show empathy for a 14-year old local girl whose path he crosses at Fiesta, and not wanting anything in return for his good deed to her.
The story is almost unbearably tense right from the opening paragraph, and Hughes was a driven enough scribe to maintain that tautness throughout the entirety of the novel. The writing is pure noir: edgy, nasty, lean and mean, snappy, and razor sharp. The following passages are the stuff of hardboiled gold:
Black rage shook him. He hadn’t had a place to sleep, he hadn’t had food, he couldn’t even get a beer in this goddamn stinking lousy town. He was ready to turn and walk out when he saw wedged at a table against a wall, McIntyre. In the same silly hat, the red sash. Mac hadn’t seen him yet. Mac was watching the dance floor. Sailor knew then that the Sen was here. The Sen and Iris Towers. He took his stance in the room.
The waiter had pushed under elbows to the bar. By some trick he was coming out again balancing his loaded tray. Part of the load was a bottle of Pabst, a cold bottle, the drops of moisture still beading it.
Sailor stuck out his hand and lifted off the bottle. The ape began to sputter out of his warped mouth. Sailor said, ‘Stow it.’ He clinked a half dollar on the tray. ‘Crawl under and get another.’ He put the bottle to his mouth and his eyes warned the ape what he could do if he didn’t like it. The burning ice was heaven in his throat, down his gullet, into his hollow stomach.
He walked off, the malevolent black eyes following him. He took another swig and bumped through the narrow space towards McIntyre. He was himself again. The noise, the smoke, the dirty glare was all part of the usual to him. Even McIntyre, alone, watching, waiting was part of it. He felt good. McIntyre wasn’t waiting for him. He shoved on until he reached the wall.
He hadn’t been inside a church since the old lady died and he didn’t want to go in one again. A lot of pious talk, a lot of praying, a lot of turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemies stuff. Nothing about how to get out of a Chicago slum into the Gold Coast. He’d learned that in a pool hall. The church had never done anything for him.
Dorothy B. Hughes was a poet and a literary critic, in addition to being an author of 14 crime novels. Noir buffs will know her mostly for In a Lonely Place, her 1947 book, if not the classic film of the same title. It’s time those same aficionados got to know Ride the Pink Horse. Mysterious Press has just recently reissued RTPH, along with several other Hughes titles, as ebooks. Read it that way, or pick up an old used copy, however you like to buy your secondhand books. But ride the horse.
Brian Greene's articles on books, music, and film have appeared in 20 different publications since 2008. His writing on crime fiction has also been published Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, and Mulholland Books. Brian's collection of short stories, Make Me Go in Cirlces, will be published by All Classic Books in late 2013 or early '14. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, and their cat Rita Lee. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
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