The mys­ter­ies of Dorothy B. Hughes


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The time of cel­e­bra­tion, of re­lease from gloom, from the specter of evil. But un­der cel­e­bra­tion was evil; the feast was rooted in blood, in the Span­ish con­quer­ing of the In­dian. It was a mem­ory of death and destruc­tion . ... A mem­ory of peace, but be­fore peace, death and destruc­tion. In­dian, Spa­niard, Gringo; the out­sider, the paler face. One in Fi­esta.”

— Dorothy B. Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse

Mys­tery writer and Santa Fe res­i­dent Dorothy B. Hughes, whose 1946 novel Ride the Pink Horse is among a hand­ful of books she set here, seems to have har­bored com­pli­cated feel­ings about the city. Ride the Pink Horse, which is rife with de­tails about Santa Fe’s com­plex his­tory, cen­ters on a Chicago hood­lum named Sailor who tracks a va­ca­tion­ing Illinois se­na­tor to the Plaza dur­ing Fi­esta. Sailor ini­tially sneers at the small town (which he re­peat­edly calls a “dump”), its di­verse cit­i­zenry, and es­pe­cially its strange rit­u­als — the burn­ing of Zo­zo­bra, Fi­esta’s gar­ish car­ni­val am­bi­ence — even as he en­lists the guid­ance of a His­pano-In­dian carousel op­er­a­tor and an enig­matic San Ilde­fonso Pue­blo teenager. Through the course of the novel, as the cap­i­tal city’s tra­di­tions make an im­pres­sion on Sailor’s cal­lous moder­nity, Santa Fe it­self be­comes a kind of phan­tom char­ac­ter. One won­ders what, ex­actly, the book’s au­thor may have felt about the an­nual cel­e­bra­tion of Fi­esta — or even about the town as a whole.

“She hated Santa Fe. She was from Kansas City, which was a big­ger place,” said Suzy Sarna, Hughes’ youngest daugh­ter. “I think she thought Santa Fe was be­neath her. She didn’t like that it snowed, it was hot in the sum­mer, it was dry. But she lived there for a long time.”

In ad­di­tion to her cult-hero sta­tus among fans of dark mid­cen­tury crime fic­tion, Hughes’ name may ring bells for cinephiles — two no­table films are adapted from her books: Ride the Pink Horse (1947), directed by and star­ring Robert Mont­gomery, and In

a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Ni­cholas Ray and fea­tur­ing Humphrey Bog­art and Gloria Gra­hame. “It seems like she’s peren­ni­ally ripe for re­dis­cov­ery,” says film his­to­rian Imo­gen Sara Smith in the com­men­tary for the Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion’s 2015 DVD of

Ride the Pink Horse. “Pe­ri­od­i­cally some of her books are reprinted, and peo­ple write about them and say, ‘Why is she not bet­ter known?’ She’s very in­ter­ested in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween char­ac­ters and their en­vi­ron­ments. She’s very in­ter­ested in class and race and what things like class envy and in­tol­er­ance do to peo­ple’s in­ner lives and their moral de­vel­op­ment.”

Hughes’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tions are part of a larger milieu of crime fic­tion writ­ers who ex­am­ined com­plex is­sues of iden­tity. In a July/Au­gust 2016 At­lantic Monthly ar­ti­cle on women crime nov­el­ists, Ter­rence Raf­ferty notes that “while male pulp writ­ers were play­ing with guns and fight­ing off those wily femmes fa­tales, women like [Pa­tri­cia] High­smith and Dorothy B. Hughes and Mar­garet Mil­lar were bur­row­ing into the enig­mas of iden­tity and the killing stresses of ev­ery­day life.” Sarah Wein­man, edi­tor of the Li­brary of Amer­ica’s Women Crime Writ­ers: Eight Sus­pense Nov­els of the 1940s and ’50s (2015), writes that Hughes’ “main char­ac­ters stood out­side rul­ing classes and gov­ern­ments, took part in clan­des­tine op­er­a­tions try­ing to un­seat evil, and over­came dam­aged pasts and ter­ror-filled presents with re­silience and tough­ness that sur­prised even them. Hughes, in other words, plumbed three-di­men­sional depths, no mat­ter the plot de­vice or twist.”

Wein­man’s praise for Hughes knows no bounds: She has called her “the world’s finest fe­male noir writer.” She’s not alone: In 1945, critic Howard Hay­craft wrote in The New York Times that of all the au­thors in the mys­tery genre, “for dis­tinc­tion and in­flu­ence in their cho­sen field,” he would nom­i­nate only two Amer­i­can writ­ers from the years 1939-45: Ray­mond Chan­dler and Dorothy B. Hughes.

Born in 1904, Dorothy Belle Flana­gan ar­rived in the Land of En­chant­ment in the early 1930s for grad­u­ate stud­ies at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico in Al­bu­querque. She had al­ready ac­quired a jour­nal­ism de­gree from the Univer­sity of Mis­souri, at­tended Columbia Univer­sity for a time, and man­aged to win the Yale Series of Younger Po­ets com­pe­ti­tion with a book of po­ems called Dark Cer­tainty (1931). In 1932 she mar­ried Levi Al­lan Hughes Jr., the scion of a prom­i­nent Santa Fe busi­ness­man. The cou­ple set­tled in the city as Dorothy be­gan rais­ing a fam­ily — Sarna, born in 1940, was the youngest of three chil­dren — and churn­ing out crime fic­tion.

Hughes’ prose wasn’t flashy but con­tained mul­ti­ple lay­ers. She wrote in a tough, no-non­sense style, about the world as it was, not as we wanted it to be. — edi­tor Sarah Wein­man

Her first novel, The So Blue Marble (1940), fea­tur­ing a pair of vil­lain­ous twin broth­ers, kicked off a pro­lific seven-year pe­riod dur­ing which she pub­lished 11 books.

Dorothy en­joyed a priv­i­leged life as the daugh­terin-law of Levi Al­lan Hughes, Sr., a wool baron who co-founded Santa Fe Builders Sup­ply Com­pany — San­busco — in 1882 and served as pres­i­dent of the First Na­tional Bank. (A Ran­dall Davey por­trait of him still hangs in the bank on Lin­coln Av­enue to­day.) The Hughes’ for­mer es­tate at 215 Wash­ing­ton Av­enue was grand, Sarna re­mem­bered. “That house was huge. It took up a whole block. We had a swim­ming pool, a ten­nis court, gar­dens, all kinds of stuff. It was par­adise there.”

Sarna de­scribed her rel­a­tives in a phone call from her home in Wash­ing­ton State. “We have a fas­ci­nat­ing fam­ily. My grand­fa­ther [Hughes, Sr.] came to New Mex­ico from Bloom­ing­ton, In­di­ana. San­busco was what he cre­ated. Betty Zook [of the fam­ily who owned Zook’s Phar­macy, which closed in 1983 and was the old­est New Mex­ico phar­macy in con­tin­u­ous op­er­a­tion] mar­ried my un­cle Frank Flana­gan. My aunt Calla [Dorothy’s sis­ter] was Calla Hay of The New Mex­i­can. Ev­ery­body knew Calla — she wrote [a col­umn called] Paso Por Aquí. I worked at San­busco for a while … We all worked there at one time or another.”

Dorothy Hughes seems to have main­tained an ac­tive so­cial life in town. A July 1938 Santa Fe New Mex­i­can write-up of the mu­si­cal re­vue Tourists Ahoy! at the Len­sic lists Hughes and Hay as co-di­rec­tors of a pro­duc­tion that starred Jane Bau­mann, wife of artist Gus­tave Bau­mann, and fea­tured orig­i­nal songs by Hughes. In 1940, she be­gan re­view­ing mys­tery nov­els for the Al­bu­querque Tribune. But she was most de­voted to her fic­tion, of­ten writ­ing late into the night after her chil­dren had gone to bed. De­scrib­ing her writ­ing process, Hughes said, “You learn from news­pa­per writ­ing, and you learn where to cut a story. Then you have to read writ­ers in the field of fic­tion of which you are in­ter­ested.” Sarna re­mem­bered her mother’s iron will not to be dis­turbed: “You did not go into her room when she was writ­ing. She wrote in her bed­room lay­ing in bed, and you had to knock on the door, and if she was busy, you couldn’t go in. She would just not an­swer.”

She was busy cook­ing up thrillers — “Writ­ing was a com­pul­sion for me,” she told The New Mex­i­can in 1978. Her first novel set in Santa Fe, The Black­birder (1943), is a fast-paced tale of wartime es­pi­onage fea­tur­ing a strong-willed, des­per­ate young woman named Julie Guille, who trav­els by train from New York to Santa Fe, on the run from both the Gestapo and the FBI, who are pur­su­ing her be­cause of her fam­ily’s en­tan­gled al­liances. Julie has heard tales of the Black­birder, a clan­des­tine traf­ficker who fer­ries refugees from Santa Fe to Mex­ico, so she holes up in a room at La Fonda to wait for word of the mys­te­ri­ous man. Hughes’ re­source­ful hero­ine prizes self-preser­va­tion at all costs, at one point hid­ing out among a fam­ily of Te­suque Pue­blo In­di­ans and dis­guis­ing her­self as a mem­ber of their clan in or­der to avoid dis­cov­ery by her en­e­mies. A note in the 2004 Fem­i­nist Press reis­sue of the novel states that Hughes’ pro­tag­o­nist stands in stark “con­trast to the typ­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of wartime women as ‘Mrs. Minivers’ guard­ing home and hearth.”

Hughes mined her adopted home­town for de­tails that she de­posited into her books. Ride the Pink Horse’s ti­tle refers to Tío Vivo, the Taos carousel that once graced the Plaza dur­ing Fi­esta (it is also fea­tured in the film, along with footage of an ac­tual Zo­zo­bra and Fi­esta). Sarna said, “She had a great mem­ory for things, like with Tío Vivo. I rode and rode and rode on Tío Vivo. … It was a hand-cranked merry-go-round, and if he [the ride op­er­a­tor] liked you, he’d let you go on and on.” This ex­act sce­nario marks a piv­otal mo­ment in the novel, when Sailor seems to soften at the ride op­er­a­tor’s dis­play of gen­eros­ity, cou­pled with the child­like joy of the Pue­blo teen who gets to ride the carousel’s pink horse once more.

Both Ride the Pink Horse and The Black­birder fea­ture sev­eral scenes set at La Fonda, whose ’40s in­car­na­tion, com­plete with an atrium din­ing room, is the cen­ter of the ac­tion for well-heeled vis­i­tors and their schemes. The ho­tel seems to have been in­te­gral to the Hughes fam­ily, too. Ac­cord­ing to Sarna, “We al­ways went and had din­ner or lunch there. Any time we needed to find my dad, he was in La Fonda. La Fonda was the place you went to if you wanted to find any­one, or just have din­ner, or if you wanted to hang out.”

Be­fore long, Hol­ly­wood came call­ing for Dorothy Hughes, first adapt­ing The Fallen Spar­row (1942) into a Richard Wal­lace-directed film star­ring John Garfield. In 1944, the Hughes fam­ily moved to Los An­ge­les. “She was of­fered a job at the stu­dios writ­ing scripts,” said Sarna. “That’s when we moved to Cal­i­for­nia.” Sarna said her mother thrived in LA. “She liked be­ing at the beach. She’d go to the stu­dio, do her thing. She was much hap­pier in Cal­i­for­nia.”

The fam­ily’s roots re­mained in the South­west, how­ever. “Ev­ery sum­mer we went back to Santa Fe. We al­ways went in the sum­mer­time.” An Au­gust 1944 col­umn in The New Mex­i­can con­tains a breath­less ac­count of Hughes’ re­cent meet­ing with Al­fred Hitch­cock, after the head of the story department at Selznick Pic­tures, Mar­garet McDonell, asked Hughes if she’d like to go to the set of Hitch­cock’s movie The House of Doc­tor Ed­wards [which later be­came Spell­bound], star­ring In­grid Bergman.

Hughes’ pres­ence on the set of Spell­bound marked a lucky twist of fate — there, she met Bergman, who is said to have clued Humphrey Bog­art in to Hughes’ ge­nius, the re­sult be­ing that Bog­art bought the movie rights to Hughes’ 1947 Los An­ge­les-set novel Ina

Lonely Place. The most fa­mous of Hughes’ film adap­ta­tions, Ni­cholas Ray’s noir is a moody tour-de-force that fea­tures vir­tu­oso performances from Bog­art and, es­pe­cially, Gloria Gra­hame.

The novel In a Lonely Place — which, like Ride the Pink Horse, has a markedly dif­fer­ent plot from that of the film — is one of Hughes’ finest and most ex­per­i­men­tal thrillers. It em­ploys the un­re­li­able nar­ra­tion of screen­writer Dix Steele, who may or may not be a se­rial killer of young women, al­low­ing the reader to un­cover Steele’s dark­est depths with the as­sis­tance of two in­deli­ble fe­male char­ac­ters, his up­stairs neigh­bor and his friend’s wife. Wein­man told

Pasatiempo, “Hughes was sin­gu­larly able to cre­ate ter­ror and sus­pense in a way that gen­er­ated pal­pa­ble fear. She was so good with char­ac­ter — I still think of Dix and Lau­rel and Brub and Joan of Lonely Place. ... Her prose wasn’t flashy but con­veyed mul­ti­ple lay­ers. She wrote in a tough, no-non­sense style, about the world as it was, not as we wanted it to be.”

Hughes re­turned to Santa Fe for a time in the early 1960s after her mother died, hav­ing taken an ex­tended break from writ­ing crime fic­tion, though she con­tin­ued pen­ning book re­views for sev­eral news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing the Al­bu­querque Tribune, the Los An­ge­les Times, and the New York Her­ald Tribune. In 1963, she pub­lished The Ex­pend­able Man (reis­sued in 2012 by the New York Re­view of Books), which fo­cuses on a black med­i­cal stu­dent who is ac­cused of mur­der­ing a young white girl in Phoenix. The novel has a re­mark­able twist — the reader is not clued in to the char­ac­ter’s racial iden­tity un­til about 50 pages in, when, as Wein­man said, “it be­comes stun­ningly clear why he is be­ing treated un­fairly by po­lice and why he may have rea­son to fear.” In the NYRB edi­tion’s af­ter­word, nov­el­ist Wal­ter Mosley writes of Hughes, “Her work belongs in our canon of clas­sic Amer­i­can sto­ries. Bring­ing her back is no act of nos­tal­gia; it is a gate­way through which we might ac­cess her par­tic­u­lar view of that road be­tween our glit­ter­ing ver­sions of Amer­i­can life and the darker re­al­ity that waits at the end of the ride.”

Though Hughes fa­vored pro­gres­sive char­ac­ters and sto­ry­lines, her af­fil­i­a­tions are murky. When asked if her mother was a fem­i­nist, given that her ti­tles have been reprinted by The Fem­i­nist Press and Perse­phone Books in the UK, Sarna said, “I never thought of her that way. She was the boss of the world.” Sarna added that her mother was cer­tainly “very lib­eral,” though Wein­man said that Hughes “ac­tively dis­dained sec­ond­wave fem­i­nism, putting it down in in­ter­views.”

None­the­less, Hughes tended to cre­ate icon­o­clas­tic fe­male char­ac­ters at a time when many of her peers did not, and she was ob­vi­ously also drawn to racially com­plex nar­ra­tives. Sailor, the xeno­phobe of Ride

the Pink Horse, fre­quently uses the word “spic,” and ca­su­ally dubs the carousel op­er­a­tor “Pan­cho Villa.” But the self­less­ness of the novel’s His­panic and In­dian char­ac­ters seems to spark a kinder, gen­tler awak­en­ing for Sailor. One com­men­tary on Hughes’ mi­nor­ity char­ac­ters, pub­lished in the lit­er­ary jour­nal Melus in 1984 by Lau­rence J. Oliver Jr., is ti­tled “The Dark Skinned ‘An­gels’ of Dorothy B. Hughes’s Thrillers,” high­light­ing her ten­dency to make the black, Na­tive, or His­panic peo­ple in her nov­els morally su­pe­rior to the rest.

Wein­man said she viewed Hughes’ in­ten­tions with these char­ac­ter­i­za­tions to be well-mean­ing, if some­times hack­neyed. “I think Hughes was try­ing to do the right thing. She turned down the op­por­tu­nity to blurb Pa­tri­cia High­smith’s A Game for the Liv­ing be­cause she ab­horred the Mex­i­can stereo­types. But I also think she had a knack for not al­ways re­al­iz­ing what was in her text. … She wanted to en­gage in writ­ing about race in as well-rounded a way as was ca­pa­ble to her at the time, but her at­ti­tudes, to a 21st-cen­tury au­di­ence, would be sub­ject to a lot more scru­tiny and crit­i­cism.”

De­spite Sarna’s main­tain­ing that her mother dis­liked the town, Wein­man said that judg­ing from her fic­tion, “there is a sense that her heart be­longed to Santa Fe.” After her hus­band’s death in 1975, she re­turned sev­eral times over the years (Calla Hay re­mained here, as did other rel­a­tives). After she died in Ash­land, Oregon, in 1993, her ashes were in­terred at Santa Fe’s Rosario Ceme­tery. There, near the graves of the Sis­ters of Loretto, Dorothy Hughes’ stone sits alone. She is not buried with the rest of the Hughes fam­ily, who are all two miles away at Fairview Ceme­tery. When asked why her mother was laid to rest in the town she sup­pos­edly loathed, Sarna said, “She loved my dad. … We’re all buried there. I will be buried there.”

To­day, traces of Dorothy B. Hughes around town are few. The house at 215 Wash­ing­ton Av­enue is for sale now, its left side cov­ered by a creep­ing swath of dark­green ivy that climbs to its sec­ond floor. Stand­ing in front of the once-grand res­i­dence of one of Santa Fe’s finest — and most for­got­ten — writ­ers, a vivid pic­ture comes to mind. Once upon a time, a hard-nosed dame with an over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion likely re­clined be­hind one of these shad­owy up­stairs win­dows, writ­ing some­thing das­tardly in long­hand on her bed, ig­nor­ing ev­ery knock at the door.

Hughes tended to cre­ate icon­o­clas­tic fe­male char­ac­ters at a time when many of her peers did not.

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