The Expendable Man

Hughes, Dorothy

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Field, Steven
  • Date of entry: Sep-14-2021
  • Last revised: Aug-25-2023


A young man, an intern at UCLA Medical Center, is heading out of Los Angeles on his way to his niece’s wedding in Phoenix.  He has signed out for the long weekend and he is eagerly anticipating some time with his family, which will include (though he doesn’t know this yet) his niece’s college roommate, an eligible young woman from a prominent Washington, DC, family, who will be at the wedding also.  Driving his mother’s late-model Cadillac, with his suitcase, medical bag, and his father’s golf clubs in the trunk, he is fifteen miles out of Indio and in the middle of nowhere when he spots a teenage girl by the side of the road.  She’s a bit disheveled and is carrying a small canvas travel bag and a white plastic handbag and nothing else; she looks to him like the girls his younger sisters refer to as “cheap.”  He pulls over and rolls down his window.  She is sullen and somewhat evasive in answering questions, and she happens to be going to Phoenix also.  Hugh feels that he can’t just leave her here, in the desert, where who knows who she might encounter, so he
offers a ride; he decides, however, that he will drop her off at the next town, where she can catch the bus. 

What could possibly go wrong, right?

This is the set-up of Dorothy Hughes’ The Expendable Man, and the answer is, of course, plenty.  It is not a big reveal to say that the girl’s motives seem dubious and she proves hard to be rid of, being dropped off and then showing up again, including showing up at Hugh’s Phoenix motel room, where he refuses to speak to her.  It is not even a big reveal to say that the morning after she shows up at his motel room her body is found in a canal on the outskirts of Phoenix, and the autopsy reveals her to have been pregnant—and aborted.  Nor is it a big reveal—indeed, it is only logical to assume—that the suspicion of the local police falls on Hugh, the last person—and conveniently, a physician—known to have seen her alive.   It will be up to Hugh to prove his innocence despite the damning circumstances.


Dorothy Hughes was known as a writer of noir fiction, and The Expendable Man is no exception.  From the first page she creates a sense of uneasiness which pervades the entire novel.  The dry airless heat of the southwestern desert, the rowdy and vaguely threatening teenagers in their jalopies who buzz about the town of Indio like so many flies, the trackless expanse of territory with the lone hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere, the local police, who seem to have had their humanity burned out by the heat—all of this contributes to the subtle but steadily mounting dread which characterizes so much of the novel. 

The book was written in 1963, when Los Angeles was very much the land of dreams, and Phoenix was still a relatively young and underdeveloped city just beginning to stretch out in the Maricopa Valley; it’s a short distance from the downtown neighborhoods to farms and empty lands where bad things can happen.   And when this particular bad thing happens, people want to find the perpetrator.  If it could possibly be an outsider, someone educated and from the big city, who drives a big Cadillac—someone “not one of us”—so much the better.  Of course, it looks too easy, but the community needs someone to blame.  They need a sacrifice, and Hugh is just that:  convicting him of the crime will spare the police having to look too hard in their own backyard for the culprit.  Hugh is literally an expendable man.

Fortunately, Hugh has his family and his new love interest (and this part, while crucial to the story, seems a bit pat) to support him, and he enlists them in his attempt to solve the crime, because solving the crime is the only way to get him off the hot seat.  How this happens is well-plotted and holds the reader’s attention.

The fact that this is written in 1963 colors the way in which the novel should be read; that is, with mid-twentieth century mores and cultural referents in mind.  The dead girl has had an abortion.  Reaction to this piece of news galvanizes the community—abortion is illegal at this time, and the Arizona of the novel considers it immoral as well.  The combination of people’s revulsion at the very fact of the abortion, and the thirst for punishment that accompanies it, magnifies the crime of murder; everyone talks about the heinous nature of what has happened.  Also, the Cadillac was at the time the ultimate symbol of American automotive fine craftsmanship and elegance, and of having “arrived.”  And a medical school education was expensive; not all families could afford to pay for one.  And golf was, and still is, an expensive indulgence.  With touches like these Hughes paints a very specific picture of her protagonist. 

The Expendable Man
is, however, more than simply a mystery.  Hughes’ ability to create the setting and build the uneasiness is superb literary craft.  Interestingly, it’s possible that the way she does this has partly to do with her excellent writing and partly to do with popular culture that postdated the novel’s publication—i.e., it may have as much to do with what the reader brings to the novel as (or rather, in addition to) what the author puts in it.  Every film that included a hitchhiker story gone bad—and there are any number of them—contributes to the aura of dread in the early pages.  And it is hard to read the descriptions of the action in Phoenix without channeling the early parts of Hitchcock’s Psycho.   And we all know how that turned out.

The other important facet of this novel is the novel as social commentary, never directly stated, but always there.  The conflict between the middle- or upper-middle-class, cultured, educated, “city slicker” and the locals who think and live very differently—and are looking to hang someone—is riveting.   

There is, of course one big reveal which comes out of left field.  It happens relatively early on and changes everything in the way the reader views the story.  It’s actually too good, too cleverly imagined, to give away, and I won’t do that.  But watch for it (it’ll be hard to miss) and prepare to have everything you’ve thought about the story suddenly change with the breathless rapidity of a rug being pulled out from under you.  It will ratchet up the discomfort and make you re-evaluate the entire story and your reactions to it.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.


New York Review of Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count