Using a distinct setting, a complex anti-hero, a series of unsavory, as well as empathetic characters, and most notably, a social heartbeat, Dorothy B. Hughes’ Ride the Pink Horse offers an extremely compelling journey.
There are many fine writers of noir of the twentieth century. Yet, there are few that utilize the crime genre as a form social conscience the way Dorothy B. Hughes has done. Additionally, it is exceptional, and also anomalous, how successful Hughes, as a woman of the times, is at capturing the white male noir protagonist, ever-present of noirs of the 1940s. She is also great at developing characters of different ethnicities that are often typically marginalized in the noir novel, especially during that era.
“Sarah Weinman calls Hughes, also the author of In a Lonely Place (1947): ‘the world’s finest female noir writer,’ a renown anticipated eight years earlier by the cover blurb of a 2004 reissuance of The Blackbirder (1943) touting its author as the ‘Queen of Noir,’ considerable evidence exists that Hughes, though not programmatically so, went against the grain of her male contemporaries’ pulp fiction”(Snyder 291). Hughes delves into issues of injustice, poverty, oppression, in addition to exploring the usual tropes of noir. She is adept at crafting a tale, but there are overwhelming demonstrations of racial transgressions, which she addresses and weaves effortlessly into her novels.
After reading the new Penzler Publishers reissue of one of Hughes’ best-known titles, Ride the Pink Horse (1946), I was stuck with the stark simplicity of the prose. The Penzler reissue features an illuminating introduction by Sara Paretsky, who brings to light all the controversial and fascinating aspects of the novel discussed by critics. The introduction alone is worth the purchase of this reissue as Paretsky explains that “Hughes finds evil more beguiling to explore than good, and her exploration is rich in detail” (II).
When one begins reading this novel, it is evident that Hughes doesn’t want to waste time. Her writing his terse and rhythmic .The story takes place during Fiesta in Santa Fe. A man, known only as Sailor, shows up at Fiesta with an agenda to collect a debt from corrupt senator, Willis Douglass. Sailor is our antihero. He apparently worked for Douglass in a henchmen-like capacity. Later we learn the debt is actually hush-blackmail money that Sailor is demanding to keep quiet about knowledge of the senator’s murder of his wife. Sailor intends to use the money to move to Mexico and start a new life.
The story is immediately compelling and jumps into the gritty, seedy underbelly of Santa Fe at Fiesta time. Hughes does not fill the page with very much exposition. The story is a straight-forward crime tale with not too many convoluted plot twists. She sets the gritty tone that demands the reader’s attention from the first few sentences and maintains it consistently throughout.
Rather than playing with a twisty-plot, Hughes is more concerned with style, atmosphere, and ultimately the injustices of humanity, in general. Hughes has a penchant for depicting back alleys, seedy bars, and all night “greasy spoons’. Places like these are all the best milieus to situate noirs because they appear to be conducive to interesting narratives and colorful characters.
There are several distinct characters in the novel such as McIntyre, the detective assigned to follow Douglass’ grimy trail to Santa Fe. The detective and Sailor cross paths and there seems to be a reluctant, grudging respect between the two men, apparently both repelled and revolted by the crooked Senator. Sailor is a man with a checkered past, but there appears to be a sought-after redemption in Sailor’s actions, unlike Douglass, whom Hughes depicts as all bad.
Snyder says, “In two of her other thirteen novels, all except the last of which appeared between 1940 and 1952, Hughes even more aggressively subverted the hard-boiled/noir mode by addressing issues of social justice within the framework of crime fiction” (291). Oliver, supporting this point of view, explains: “In Ride the Pink Horse (1946), the theme of social injustice occupies center stage. All the elements of this tightly structured crime drama – its characters, plot, and New Mexico setting – are organically related to what Hughes here calls the “excretions of the white man” (Oliver 31). It appears that New Mexico is an ideal setting for Hughes to utilize to demonstrate her ideas about American culture. Also, Hughes was born in Santa Fe and spent much of her life there, writing with first-hand knowledge about all nuances of culture of the southwest United States, and then adds a noir spin on it.
In addition to the themes of social injustice, Hughes creates an incredibly complex anti-hero in Sailor who calls to mind the morally conflicted protagonists of great noirs….
“The authors of genteel mystery and detective fiction display little interest in racial minorities,” notes critic Oliver and goes on to explain, “Offensive stereotypes do not mar Hughes’s fiction. Indeed, not only do many of her thrillers implicitly condemn bigotry, her numerous dark characters are consistently presented as being the moral superiors of the race that has oppressed and abused them”(Oliver 28). Oliver is specifically calling out the polite racist elements of Agatha Christie primarily and contrasts her work with Hughes. Crime fiction in general has been filled with unfortunate treatment of diverse populations.
In addition to the themes of social injustice, Hughes creates an incredibly complex anti-hero in Sailor who calls to mind the morally conflicted protagonists of great noirs and neo-noirs that have been created and transformed over many decades since. He is a man on a mission and his motivations are clear, but his actions speak volumes about how is attempting to redeem himself and find a certain amount of piece, despite his past moral failings.
Sailor appears to be amoral and perhaps almost sociopathic. He has a certain monomaniacal fixation on the Senator and collecting his dues. Yet, early on we see beneath his steely, sweaty façade, that he has a heart. The most compelling evidence of sympathies begin early scene, which becomes the theme, and ultimately ends as a title.
When Sailor appears at Fiesta, he sees all the prostitutes, and one young teen, who is dressed up to look older and more seductive, disturbs him. On one hand, he feels disgust for the prostitutes’, but on the other hand he feels a deep sense of shame and heartbreak for the young teen. The loss of innocence and the exploitation of women is a strong theme in this work. This vastly contrasts the stereotypical femme fatale “dames” of Chandler.
As the story progresses, Sailor makes friends with a paunchy, alcoholic indigenous man, whom he inappropriately and cruelly refers to as “Pancho Villa”. The man sits all day by a carousel of painted horses that is hand cranked through the sweat, muscle, and sinew of this man. The indigenous man’s task is almost sysiphus-ian. Sailor, as a singular act of kindness, pays the admission fee for the teen prostitute to ride on the pink painted carousel horse. It is as if he is attempting to provide her with some sort of childlike joy that she is being deprived of.
The scene is very moving, and Sailor’s actions and even his mentality remind the reader almost of Travis Bickle in the Scorsese neo-noir classic, Taxi Driver (1976) and his random act to save Iris. This novel is dark. Pitch Black. This is the way noir should be, and perhaps why Hughes is so compelling to read. The novel has the gritty setting, the rough-hewn language, and the tension of a simmering kettle. Steam rises from the alleyways the way that it does from the sewer caps in Scorsese’s 1970s New York. The primary difference is that Santa Fe is southwestern noir, distinctly different then more conventional urban settings.
Using a distinct setting, a complex anti-hero, a series of unsavory, as well as empathetic characters, and most notably, a social heartbeat, Ride the Pink Horse offers an extremely compelling journey into the darkest of noirs. Encountering Hughes for the first time was a delight. Ultimately, refreshing and distinctly unique from her male contemporaries, Hughes’ noir reminds the reader that entire crime fiction genre need not be pigeon holed into niche pulp with endless clichés, but that within the confines of this genre, the crime novel can have social relevance, and make lasting impressions on the landscape of fiction
Hughes, Dorothy B. Ride the Pink Horse. Penzler Publishing. 2020.
Oliver, Lawrence J. “The Dark-Skinned ‘Angels’ of Dorothy B. Hughes’s Thrillers.” MELUS, vol. 11, no. 3, 1984, 27–39.
Paretsky, Sara. Introduction. Ride the Pink Horse.by Dorothy B. Hughes. I-VI.
Snyder, R.L. (2021), “Realigning Literary Noir: Dorothy B. Hughes’s Ride the Pink Horse and The Expendable Man.” Journal of American Culture. “Vol.44. No. 2, 291-299. https://doi.org/10.1111/jacc.13294
William Blick is an Assistant Professor/ Librarian at Queensborough Community College. He has published articles on film studies in Senses of Cinema, Cineaction, and Cinemaretro. His fiction has appeared in Out of the Gutter, Pulp Metal Magazine, and Pulp Modern Flash.