‘The Expendable Man’ by Dorothy B. Hughes – A Wrongly Suspected Black Man

‘The Expendable Man’ by Dorothy B. Hughes  (1963) – 245 pages    Grade: B


‘The Expendable Man’ tells the story of how a man who performs an act of kindness with all good intentions can wind up in severe trouble, particularly if that man is black.  It takes place in the early 1960s but could have happened even today.  If anything, the systemic racism among whites in the United States has increased in recent years.

“I’ve seen too many cases involving innocent people, our people.”

 A young doctor is travelling from Los Angeles across California on his way to a family wedding in Phoenix.  A white pregnant teenage girl is hitchhiking.  The doctor decides to pick her up.  He felt sorry for her.  He takes her to Phoenix and drops her off.  Later she shows up at his hotel room and asks him to perform an abortion, and he angrily refuses .

Later the police discover her murdered body, and our doctor becomes the prime suspect.  Even one of the detectives on the case is a jeering nasty racist.

“This guy says a nigger doc driving a big white Cadillac brought Bonnie Lee to Phoenix.”

 The novel builds up an atmosphere where this wrongly accused man must find the murderer of this teenage girl himself if he is ever to prove his own innocence.

il_340x270.634157526_dil0‘The Expendable Man’ reminded me of episodes of those progressive television shows from the early 1960s like ‘The Defenders’ or ‘East Side / West Side’ which took on social issues of the day.   In order to make their case stronger, these shows might stack the deck a bit by focusing on a black protagonist who is an upper class doctor of unimpeachable integrity, a Sidney Poitier type, a saint.  In making the person so virtuous, the shows somewhat lost their applicability to all of us less than immortal types.  Still it was good that a few shows faced up to white racism and dealt with it.

In her review of this book in the New Yorker, Christine Smallwood says the following of Dorothy B. Hughes.

“Crime was never Hughes’s interest, evil was, and to be evil, for her, is to be intolerant of others, of the very fact of the existence of something outside the self. With her poetic powers of description, she makes that evil a sickness in the mind and a landscape to be surveyed.” – Christine Smallwood

 ‘The Expendable Man’ is a well-done crime noir novel which addresses the continuing problem of white racism in the United States.


5 responses to this post.

  1. This sounds like a thought-provoking novel, and it’s sad to think that something like this could still happen in today’s world. I have Hughes’s In a Lonely Place in my TBR – it’s one of my favourite films, but I’ve yet to read the book.


    • Hi JacquiWine,
      I keep trying to rent ‘In a Lonely Place’ from Netflix, but it keeps saying ‘Very Long Wait’. I guess Dorothy B. Hughes wrote the book for another famous movie, ‘Ride the Pink Horse’, which I haven’t seen either.
      Thanks for stopping by.


  2. […] Book World hat The Expendable Man von Dorothy B. Hughes gelesen. Das Buch wurde 1963 veröffentlicht und ist schlimmerweise immer […]


  3. The problem with the Poitier effect is that real life victims of mistaken identity or wrongful arrest tend not to be so pure, and so tend not to get the sympathy they deserve. It’s easy in a way to see how wrong it is that a middle class professional gets into trouble (one can imagine a period reader saying “but for his colour that could be me!” with an inward gasp), but it’s perhaps harder when the wrongfully accused is a car mechanic with a history of prison time for robbery and aggravated assault from his youth, but a history of guilt past doesn’t mean guilt present or even continued dishonest or violent conduct.

    Anyway, preaching to the converted.

    Nice comparison to the 1960s social issue shows, but as I always found those a bit preachy I’ll probably pass. In a Lonely Place by the way is a great movie, keep trying!


    • Hi Max,
      The Poitier Effect was definitely real. I remember watching ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ where the white daughter brings home Sidney Poitier as her fiance. Poitier does happen to be a black physician who would put most white guys to shame. I’m sure the family would have had a much different reaction if the daughter brought home Snoop Dogg. Obama is our Sidney Poitier today. Obama has had to be about five times as good as any white President has been in order to get any credit at all.
      I must get ‘In a Lonely Place’ somehow.



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