Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
Originally published 1946
Sailor used to be Senator Willis Douglass’ protege. When he met the lawmaker, he was just a poor kid, living on the Chicago streets. Douglass took him in, put him through school, and groomed him to work as a confidential secretary. And as the senator’s dealings became increasingly corrupt, he knew he could count on Sailor to clean up his messes.
Willis Douglass isn’t a senator anymore; he left Chicago, Sailor, and a murder rap behind and set out for the sunny streets of Santa Fe. Now, unwilling to take the fall for another man’s crime, Sailor has set out for New Mexico as well, with blackmail and revenge on his mind. But there’s another man on his trail as well―a cop who wants the ex-senator for more than a payoff. In the midst of a city gone mad, bursting with wild crowds for a yearly carnival, the three men will violently converge…
Ride the Pink Horse is the third novel by Dorothy B. Hughes to be reprinted as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I held both of the previous reprints, The So-Blue Marble and Dread Journey in very high regard so I was really excited to see this release announced some months ago. Knowing that the book is one of Hughes’ most widely admired novels (along with The Expendable Man and In A Lonely Place), I was keen to get started on it and so it inevitably jumped to the top of my TBR pile as soon as my copy arrived.
It takes place on the streets of Santa Fe during the three-day carnival Fiestas de Santa Fe which commemorates the Spanish retaking the city. Sailor has arrived in town on the trail of his former employer, Senator Douglass of Illinois. He plans to stage an impromptu meeting with him to extort a sum of money from him before he flees south of the border. Unfortunately for him, he soon discovers that all of the local hotels are booked leaving him on the streets for the night. This forces him to try to befriend some of the locals to find shelter. To make matters worse, he also learns that McIntyre, an investigator from back home, is already in town and also hot on the senator’s trail…
The novel is neither a work of detective fiction, nor is it particularly mysterious. There is a question about what exactly Sailor intends to blackmail the Senator with but it soon becomes pretty clear what sort of information it is. Similarly we can pretty quickly guess the nature of his grudge against his old boss. Instead this is the story of the consequences to a crime and it offers a noir-infused exploration of the mentality of a man and the situation he finds himself in.
While the novel is generally very well reviewed on Goodreads and similar sites, one common thread in critical reviews is the suggestion that the book does not contain much in the way of plot. There is admittedly some truth in this as there is not much incident in the novel and yet there is a lot of character exploration and development. In the course of two hundred and fifty pages we see Sailor absorb and respond to his environment and the thoughts it evokes in him. The question is whether this what effect those experiences will have on his will to follow through on his plans and how that final inevitable confrontation between Sailor and the Senator will play out.
Sailor makes for an interesting, if rather difficult protagonist. Though the novel is written in the third person, Hughes’ narration is sympathetic to his thoughts, reflecting how he feels about the things he sees and the people he interacts with. That narration is liberally sprinkled with racial epithets towards the Mexican-American and Pueblo Indian characters as Sailor makes his discomfort at his new environment quite clear at every turn. Yet as the novel progresses we see those attitudes soften as he develops what Sara Paretsky terms in her excellent introduction to the AMC edition a ‘reluctant empathy’ towards those groups, even if he never quite connects the similarities between the complex relationships between the various ethnic communities of Santa Fe and those of Chicago.
Each relationship that Sailor enters into in the course of this novel is similarly hard to define. Take for instance his interactions with Pila, the young Pueblo girl to whom he gifts a bottle of pop and a ride on the carousel. Others expect that this is a prelude to sexual advances but his relationship with her turns out to be more complex and interesting. He listens to her story, hears what she wants and clearly comes to see something of himself in her. When he gives her a final piece of advice towards the end of the story he is speaking to his younger self as much as he is talking to her. His interactions with ‘Pancho’ and the Senator are just as richly nuanced.
Where I think Ride the Pink Horse stumbles is that its discussion of race often feels a little pointed and clumsy. Hughes clearly intends to educate the reader at the same time as Sailor but those passages can sometimes feel heavy-handed or confusing. This is a problem I often find with works that were trying to address social issues (for example: The Niece of Abraham Pein) as unfortunately what seems progressive in one era can seem anything but in another.
To give an example of what I mean let me once again draw on Sailor’s conversations with Pila. Towards the end of the novel he tells her she should return to the pueblo and give up her aspirations to live in the city. The suggestion seems to be that the city is a source of depravity and corruption and that life on the pueblo, while unsatisfying for many reasons Sailor acknowledges, will allow her to retain her purity. The problem is that his statement can equally read as supportive of racial segregation which would clearly be a very different message. While I think it is clear from the broader context of the book that this is unlikely to be the message Hughes intends, the author’s choice to not connect this speech directly to Sailor’s own experiences means that the ambiguity does exist – particularly given how direct she can be elsewhere in the same novel such as when a character relates the history of racial relations in the era.
The other dominant theme in the book is that of forgiveness and redemption. The question of whether Sailor can make a safe and sensible choice and let go of his feelings with regards the Senator to survive runs through the whole novel, being most clearly addressed in his conversations with McIntyre. Though the imagery here can also feel a little heavy at points, I think this theme is developed and addressed more clearly and directly building to a powerful resolution.
While I doubt that the resolution to Sailor’s situation will surprise anyone that doesn’t make those final pages less powerful. Indeed the sense of the inevitability of some aspects of the conclusion is a large part of why that ending works for me.
As satisfying as the ending is however, I think the novel never quite overcomes its clumsiness in its handling of its themes, nor its simplicity as a crime narrative. Those attempting to read this solely for the plot will come away disappointed. For those more interested in the exploration of a character or setting however, there is much to admire here and it leaves me all the more curious to delve deeper into Hughes’ other works. Hopefully more reissues will follow…
The Verdict: A strong example of a thoughtful and nuanced character study though the plot feels rather straightforward in comparison.
This counts towards the Colorful Crime category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime cared for this much less than I did, and her review notes her disappointment with the pacing of the story.