Originally published in 1945.
Four years after she arrived in Los Angeles, Kitten Agnew has become a star. Though beautiful and talented, she’d be nowhere without Vivien Spender: Hollywood’s most acclaimed director—and its most dangerous. But Kitten knew what she was getting into when she got involved with him; she had heard the stories of Viv’s past discoveries: Once he discarded them, they ended up in a chorus line, a sanatorium, or worse.
She knows enough of his secrets that he wouldn’t dare destroy her career. But he may be willing to kill her. On a train from Los Angeles to Chicago, Kitten learns that Viv is planning to offer her roommate a part that was meant for her. If she lets him betray her, her career will be over. But fight for the part, and she will be fighting for her life as well.
I first encountered Dorothy B. Hughes’ work when I read The So-Blue Marble, the author’s debut novel which was reprinted last year as one of the earliest novels in the American Mystery Classics range. I loved that book, going so far as to nominate it one of my choices for Reprint of the Year, so I was excited to see that Penzler Press have opted to release another of her novels.
Dread Journey is set on a train that is headed to New York city. Among the passengers are Kitten Agnew, one of America’s biggest film stars, Vivien Spender, the movie mogul who made her a star, and Gratia, the young unknown who he intends to replace her.
The book begins shortly after a moment of revelation for Kitten. She has been assigned to share a compartment with Gratia and notices that she is reading Vivien’s copy of a book he keeps on his bedside table – a book he has long-intended to adapt as his masterpiece and in which she is contracted to play Clavdia, the female lead. This unbreakable contract, signed in the early days of her relationship with Vivien, is now her only leverage to try and ensure that she doesn’t end up like all of his other one-time proteges and that she can walk away on her terms. The price she has set is marriage – not because she loves Viv or wants to be with him but because she knows that will guarantee a divorce settlement and the status of having been Mrs Spender.
Then she learns what had happened to the first Mrs Spender…
The novel opens with Kitten saying to herself that she is afraid. She had felt that she was coming at Vivien from a position of strength but now she realizes that there is a good chance she will never make it to New York at all. Seeing Gratia with the book has made her realize that Vivien expects to be moving forward with his project and since there is no chance of an amicable settlement she begins to believe that he intends to kill her at some point during their journey.
It is this realization that gives the book its title and certainly a strong sense of dread and foreboding hang over the novel. Hughes quickly confirms to the reader that Kitten’s interpretation of the situation and fears are right. Viv is a dangerous man and he has killed before. The book draws its suspense from the question of whether he will manage to do it before they reach New York as we observe each character trying to anticipate the behaviors of the other which, in the process, pulls several of the other passengers into the story.
While the book is obviously set in the era of Hollywood’s studio system, it surprised me just how relevant this story still feels today. Questions of the power of Hollywood executives and the way it is exerted over young stars remain to this day as we have obviously seen in the past few years with Harvey Weinstein and so while the specifics of Kitten’s situation may be of their moment, the ideas it discusses retain their power.
At the heart of this story is the question of agency. Kitten the star has been created by Viv not out of a recognition of her talent but as a response to his infatuation. He has intended to use her and she, in return, recognizes the situation in both its opportunities and risks and is determined to take advantage of it. In this regard Kitten finds herself in an unusual position for a potential victim in a crime story – she is fully aware of the danger she is in, has a means to completely avoid it but refuses to consider it. He promised her that part and she is determined to make him pay for it.
An interesting side effect of this is that it is hard to entirely regard her as a victim. In any other context or situation she would be largely unsympathetic, particularly given her vanity. It just happens that she is placed opposite Vivien, a man who is quite clearly a villain and so, while we may not exactly be rooting for her, we certainly don’t want him to win.
In The So-Blue Marble Hughes gave us two utterly chilling villains but while Vivien is less obviously psychotic than those two brothers, he is arguably even more monstrous. Part of the reason for that is he is so clearly a type of figure we can recognize: the Hollywood svengali who creates starlets only to lose interest in them and destroy them. He justifies this because he believes he made those women the successes they were, raising them from obscurity, teaching them how to act and developing personas for them.
Ultimately each girl lets him down, not because of a lack of talent but because they cannot be the perfect creation he wants to imagine them to be. Once he realizes that he has to move on to repeat the process. The reader may well find themselves imagining what might happen to Gratia several years down the line. Is she actually his perfect Clavdia or is this process doomed to repeat itself over and over? We may also question to what extent he is being driven by lust and to what extent it is actually about his vision for the role. I’d argue it is the former and the latter is a veneer he uses to justify it but I think you could just as easily come up with an argument that he is first and foremost an obsessive, amoral artist.
These two characters are both quite fascinating and I really enjoyed seeing how they surprise each other at points in the story. The plot never really develops in a way that is truly unexpected but rather it sets things up and engages the reader in seeing how these elements and ideas overlap and interact with each other. Hughes sustains this tension well and I think uses it to develop a truly powerful conclusion that absolutely hits the notes I wanted, feeling like the appropriate way to end this story.
I also really appreciated Hughes’ writing style which is quite striking. The trick of making sections of the book just a couple of paragraphs long to provide us with other perspectives is interesting, reminding us of the reality that exists around these characters and also allowing us to see some other roles within the Hollywood system including screenwriters, personal assistants and musicians. Arguably a few characters, those without the direct ties to the action, never really feature in the narrative but even then I think they serve a purpose in that they remind us that these characters’ are existing within a sort of bubble and that their actions will be observed.
Just as in The So-Blue Marble, the prose is frequently poetical and highly impressive but where that book’s poetry could sometimes be a barrier to comprehension, here I think it supports and in some ways drives the story. It is never hard to follow what is going on or the ideas Hughes is driving at. It is a really engrossing and interesting read.
Clearly I loved this book. It is one of the most satisfying books I have encountered since starting this blog and by far the best of the novels I have read from the American Mystery Classics range so far.
It won’t be for everyone who reads this blog – it is first and foremost a suspense story so puzzle-driven readers may want to look elsewhere – but I would certainly strongly recommend it, particularly for those who are new to Hughes.
The Verdict: A superb, suspenseful story which cuts deep into the heart of old Hollywood but its themes are still relevant today.
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