What it’s about: A young doctor driving from California to a family wedding in Phoenix, Arizona, sees a teenage girl hitchhiking on a desert road and stops to pick her up, setting in motion a chain of events that will have him suspected of murder when her body turns up a few days later. The “expendable man” of the title refers of course to the protagonist, who becomes the wrong man conveniently accused of murder for reasons that the reader is not let in on until about 50 pages into the book. The suspense comes in following the doctor as he tries desperately to clear his name before he is arrested, which would ruin his burgeoning career even if he did avoid prison.
Why I liked it: This is a taut, cleanly written thriller that moves relentlessly forward and allows readers a glimpse into a world that is usually not explored in crime noir. I suspect it would have been even more exotic and galvanizing for readers in Hughes’ day than it is now. Hughes also creates a wonderful sense of place with her Phoenix setting, a desert town on the verge of becoming urban. This was an interesting read, if a little dated, although I felt it could have been a bit more subtle and multilayered, not quite so straightforward in terms of good guys and bad. I expect for its time, though, it needed to be.
You might like it if: You enjoy crime noir, particularly by authors like Patricia Highsmith or Charles Willeford.
For further reading: Review in the New Yorker (with spoilers).