Murder, Glamour, and #MeToo, 1940s-Style: Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes

Although I am a big fan of mystery novels, I have read very little in the way of noir. I am ever so slowly remedying that, and thus far can count The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, and, now, Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes, as under my noir belt. Last summer I also dabbled in a noir-writing experience that was fun and gave me the chance to read lots of noir short stories.

Dread Journey was my first introduction to Dorothy B. Hughes. I enjoyed it so much that I will definitely be seeking out more of her novels. I listened to Dread Journey in audiobook format and the narrator was just okay, but in spite of that, the story and Hughes’ prose engaged me instantly, so I can only imagine that reading the rest of her books in print will be even more of a treat.

Dorothy Belle Hughes was born in 1904 in Kansas City, and worked throughout her life as a crime novelist, literary critic, and journalist. She published 14 novels, written primarily in the 1940s, and was successful and popular in her day. (Isn’t that a lovely tale!) Three of her books were adapted into films (The Fallen Sparrow, In a Lonely Place, and Ride the Pink Horse).

Dorothy B. Hughes. I see Cate Blanchett playing her in the biopic, whaddaya think?

To quote Dwyer Murphy from CrimeReads:

She took the genre seriously, reviewed it throughout her life, wrestled with its influence, icons, and legacies, and honed her own craft throughout the 1940s and into the early 50s, the heyday for the harder new mysteries coming out of America and transforming the literature. Nobody was harder than Hughes, when you got right down to it.

Dread Journey is the story of a group of passengers on a train from Los Angeles to New York. We have Vivien Spender, a rich and famous Hollywood movie mogul, and all of the minor planets orbiting his star: Kitten Agnew, the vain and selfish starlet, Gratia Shawn, the naive and inexperienced ingenue, Leslie Augustin, the jaded playboy composer, Sidney Pringle, the rejected penniless writer, and Mike Dana, Spender’s unassuming personal secretary. (It’s worth noting that Mike is a woman, as it’s rare to encounter this name on a female character.) Throw into the mix Hank Cavanaugh, a journalist with PTSD, James Cobbett, the porter for the train carriage, a pair of young newlyweds, and an elderly couple, and you’ve got yourself all the makings of an en route crime scene.

Pocket Books, Inc. edition, 1947
American Mystery Classics edition, 2019

The suspense of this book comes from the shifting inner monologues of the various characters. As the train rumbles along its track towards New York and cocktails are made and consumed endlessly, we learn that Viv Spender plans to kill Kitten Agnew, and that Kitten knows it. The majority of the novel takes place in the day and night after the train has left L.A., as suspicion among the passengers mounts, and Leslie, Hank, and Mike all try to prevent Kitten’s death from transpiring, each in their own ways.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel to me was the commentary on the role of women. It’s both blatantly obvious and embedded deeply within the hardboiled narrative and character motivations. Kitten Agnew is young, beautiful, and famous. She was one of Viv Spender’s “finds,” a girl that he lifted up from poverty and moulded into the star of his design. At some point they started a physical relationship—it’s not quite clear when it began, but it’s easy to imagine Viv taking advantage of the young woman from the get-go.

Now, Viv has tired of Kitten. He has moved on to Gratia Shawn, another “find” who, we are told, is beautiful in a very different way from Kitten. While Kitten is glamorous, selfish, and brazen, with bold red lipstick and a commanding nature, Gratia is soft, natural, innocent, and shy.

The thing is—one imagines that Viv saw similar qualities in the original Kitten back when he first “discovered” her as well. It seems that once Viv has polished up his discoveries, he loses his taste for them. And if a woman dares to have any agency in her own life, then watch out—she’s surely got to be killed.

Dorothy B. Hughes has done a really fascinating thing in this story. She’s given Viv a deeper layer to his misogyny, and to his motive for murder. Viv has been planning for years to bring to life on screen his most beloved fictional character—Clavdia Chauchat, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. We are told that every time he discovers a new young actress, he believes that he has found his Clavdia. And every time he tires of them, they cease to be suitable for the role. Kitten was cleverer than the others, and got his promise down in black and white. Now that Viv is “over” Kitten and wants Gratia Shawn to be Clavdia, he is outraged that Kitten won’t be bought out of her contract. But Kitten is too savvy for that. She knows which way the wind blows, and she won’t be tossed aside for Gratia.

I’m not going to digress into a discussion about The Magic Mountain—you can read an interesting summary here—but suffice it to say that Clavdia Chauchat is both the ultimate in female attainment, and a symbol of destiny and perfection. Viv Spender’s obsession with the character of Clavdia is just one manifestation of his attitude towards women—that they exist for him to make use of.

And he’s not alone. As the narrative progresses, and we hear the women discussed through the lens of the male characters, it becomes increasingly clear that none of them view women as people, but merely as tools to be used for their own ends. Whether it’s disdain for Kitten or over-the-top glorification of Gratia, the women are seen essentially as archetypes—the huntress, the lover, the maiden. Even Hank Cavanaugh’s intense desire to save Kitten from Viv has nothing to do with Kitten at all—indeed, he quite despises her. His efforts to foil Viv’s plan stem entirely from his urge to atone for his abandonment of the suffering women that he encountered during his time as a war correspondent. For Hank, in his self-centered righteousness, Kitten could be anyone.

SPOILER ALERT! Continue reading at your own risk…here there be spoilers. Continue reading here.

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