Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes

Book Details

Originally published in 1945.
This title is a standalone.
This book will soon be republished as part of the American Mystery Classics range. That edition is shown to the right of this post but I read an earlier reprint.

The Blurb

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.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Verdict
A superb, suspenseful story which cuts deep into the heart of old Hollywood but its themes are still relevant today.


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.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During trip/vacation/etc. (When)

Reprint of the Year: The So Blue Marble

So BlueThose of you who have followed this blog for a while will be aware that I am a fan of the British Library Crime Classics range. In fact, I think it is safe to say that I wouldn’t be here blogging about mystery fiction if I hadn’t come across copies of Family MattersThe Cheltenham Square Murder or Death in the Tunnel. Certainly I wouldn’t have developed an interest in vintage crime fiction.

What that range does so brilliantly is to find authors who have fallen out of the public eye and present it in an attractive and accessible package. Part of that is the sense that the books have been carefully selected, giving the more casual reader confidence that what they will read is in some way important or interesting and that sense is reinforced by the introductory essay that accompanies each release.

Now, you may be wondering why I am talking about a publisher that wasn’t responsible for today’s nomination for Reprint of the Year – Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble. The reason is that while the British Library was successfully doing this for British authors and books, I was surprised that there wasn’t a publisher doing something comparable for vintage American crime fiction, making it accessible to a more casual audience. In stepped Otto Penzler.

Now Otto Penzler is one of those names that will be familiar to most people with an interest in mystery fiction. He is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and the founder of The Mysterious Press publishing company. He has edited numerous anthologies of crime and mystery fiction, served on the board of the Mystery Writers of America and written several reference works. He was also a voter in the 1981 Ed Hoch Locked Room Library list! In short, he is a man who knows mystery fiction and is the perfect person to curate a range highlighting the American mystery novel in its various forms.

This range debuted in the Fall of 2018 with the release of six novels. This first batch included titles by Craig Rice, Clayton Rawson, Ellery Queen, Stuart Palmer and Mary Roberts Rinehart. While none of the first six authors picked are quite as obscure as Leonard Gribble or Ellen Wilkinson future releases are set to feature less widely-known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge.

Each features an introduction by Penzler discussing the author and where that work fits into their career and they are issued in both softcover and hardcover editions, wrapped in gorgeous, vibrant artwork that gives the range consistency and serious shelf appeal (if you can afford it I would recommend the hardcovers which are sturdily bound). In short, this is the sort of range I can see myself collecting for its own sake, even if it means owning multiple copies of some of books (as I will when The Dutch Shoe Mystery comes out next year).

Now as with last week’s nomination (Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread), I do not propose reviewing the book all over again. For that I’d suggest you check out my review. Only a month has passed since I wrote it and I am pretty confident in saying that my views remain as they were.

Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is a story that draws deeply from its urban setting. It begins with a woman accosted on the street by two men who force their way into the apartment that she is borrowing from her ex-husband. Right at the start of the novel you get the sense that this character is isolated even though she is surrounded by people. Characters are able to appear and disappear with no one really noticing.

The central character is a divorced woman who has been able to reinvent herself successfully not once but twice becoming first an actress then a fashion designer. She is placed in a trying and testing situation with no support (in fact the family she has frequently prove to be liabilities) and yet she navigates it completely believably. She is sometimes distressed in the course of the story and yet she always retains her strength and identity, never being written as a damsel in distress. She is a great lead character.

Hughes also gives us a truly memorable pair of villains in the form of Danny and David Montefierrow. These murderous twins combine striking physical descriptions with moments of cold, dispassionate brutality that are quite unlike anything else I have read from the period. I felt a chill every time they appeared. One of the two is clearly a sadist and both have an ability to kill without any remorse but what sticks with me most is the unsettling, violent triangle that forms between the pair and a female character within the narrative.

One of the most interesting things Hughes does is she builds mystery out of incident rather than by defining a question for the reader to answer. From the start of the novel things happen to Griselda and she reacts as best she can with the knowledge that she has yet she does not have enough information to entire understand what is being asked of her. For instance, for much of the novel we do not have much of a sense of what exactly the Montefierrow brothers are seeking or why and that is fine because to Griselda it doesn’t really matter why they are looking for it, only that they believe she has it and that means she is in danger.

By the end of the novel all of the important questions have been answered but the journey to get to those answers is wild and unpredictable. As I say in my review, it’s not just that there are some surprising revelations and developments in the plot but it is the way characters are used and interact with each other. Unpredictable combinations lead the story down some unexpected paths and yet those moments never feel contrived or anything less than satisfying.

All of these aspects of the book combine for a truly striking reading experience. If you have never read the book I strongly recommend it, particularly if you appreciate stories in the thriller and adventure mold, and if you do then you will certainly want to pick up this edition!

The So Blue Marble by Dorothy B. Hughes

So Blue
The So Blue Marble
Dorothy B. Hughes
Originally Published 1940
Griselda Satterlee #1
Followed by The Bamboo Blonde

Dorothy B. Hughes’ The So Blue Marble is one of six vintage titles that were chosen by Otto Penzler to launch his new American Mystery Classics range. Like the British Library’s range, these books each feature an introduction giving some context to the work and information about the author.

Coming months will see titles from familiar names such as John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen as well as less widely known authors like H. F. Heard and Frances and Richard Lockridge. I think the range looks to showcase the enormous variety to be found in American Golden Age crime fiction.

While I knew that Dorothy B. Hughes is a relatively well-known name in American mystery fiction, this was my first encounter with her work. The So Blue Marble was her first mystery novel although, as the introduction notes, it might be better described as a thriller or work of sensation fiction.

The story concerns Griselda Satterlee, a former actress who has given up show business to become a fashion designer, who is taking a couple of months vacation in New York. Not being fond of hotels, she is staying in her ex-husband’s apartment while he is away on assignment as a news reporter. When she walks home one night she is stopped by two handsome, well-dressed twins who force their way into the apartment. They tell her that they have come in search of the So Blue Marble which they insist she or her ex-husband must possess.

What is the So Blue Marble? Well, in truth it is little more than a MacGuffin albeit with a mystical back story and a rather odd name. The desire to possess it provides motivation for some of the characters but the nature of the object is of little consequence. What is really important is what it means to the Montefierrow twins and what they are willing to do to acquire it.

Danny and David Montefierrow make for a fascinating pair of characters. Initially we see them in terms of their charm and physical perfection but Griselda quickly notices the blankness in their eyes which she finds quite unsettling. We see that they can be quite ruthless and prepared to harm innocent third parties while I think the triangle that forms between them and a woman reads as sadistic and disturbing while it is also hard to understand just who is dominant within the relationship.

We are introduced to a number of other characters who play roles within Griselda’s life that she will seek to protect. She has two sisters, Ann and Missy, each quite fascinating and possessing very distinct personalities. I enjoyed getting to know each of them and was pleased that they played meaningful roles within the plot.

Her ex-husband’s neighbor, an archaeology and art professor at the university, is an intriguing presence and possible romantic interest. He, of course, is concerned that he not do anything that might jeopardize his friendship with Con. One early scene in which she convinces him to stay in the apartment overnight after the incident referred to earlier is really quite charming.

Con, on the other hand, was a character that never quite worked for me. Part of it, I think, is that I was hungry for more details about their relationship, why they were initially attracted to one another and why it failed. He spends a significant portion of the novel as little more than a reference or an idea and as a result I never really felt I knew him and what makes him tick.

As for Griselda, I found her to be easy to empathize with and I appreciated that while she occasionally accepts help from male characters that she is not portrayed as a damsel in distress. I appreciated the way this story affects her relationship with Con and her desire to keep him from harm. While I think a story beat at the end is not quite earned, I did enjoy spending time in her company.

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was that it feels like an absolutely unpredictable, crazy ride. It is not just the surprising plot developments, although there are a few moments I never saw coming, but rather it is the character beats that make this feel quite different and unusual. It is a joy discovering these characters and seeing how they will all interact with each other to drive the story.

The So Blue Marble is a wonderfully entertaining, even amusing story which feels far too polished and rich to be anyone’s first novel. I had a good time discovering the secrets behind the marble and its history as well as seeing how the conflict between the twins and Griselda would play in it. For those who enjoy thriller-type stories, this would be Highly Recommended.