Friday, January 29, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “The Body on the Bench,” by Dorothy B. Hughes

(Editor’s note: This is the 79th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Southern California author Jeri Westerson. The author of two historical novels featuring disgraced 14-century knight turned private investigator Crispin Guest [Veil of Lies and the Bruce Alexander Award-nominated Serpent in the Thorns], Westerson also blogs in Getting Medieval.)

If Ross Macdonald and James M. Cain are the Kings of Noir, then surely Dorothy B. Hughes is the Queen.

This is the woman who brought us In a Lonely Place (1947), which followed the psychological meanderings of a serial killer. She wrote pulp mysteries, as much as any of those stark novels could be called “pulp.” Hard to believe that these great stories were bought for a quarter and were never meant for library shelves.

I’ve always been fond of Hughes’ work. Her tales usually start off slow, allowing for the necessary details of her superb sense of place to emerge from the page. She keeps her stories localized, set in places like Los Angeles or Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Ride the Pink Horse (1946), we get a sweaty, close concoction of Santa Fe, and you are definitely there with the protagonist, schvitzing right along with him in the fiesta heat.

So when I came across this little book from 1952, The Body on the Bench, I assumed I’d be getting another noir mystery by one of the best of them. Instead, and to my surprise, the author gives us a sort of spy novel. This is all Hughes, though, from the descriptions of the Sunset Strip to the raw characters who populate the book. Getting the Hughes treatment means you’ll get characters with dense back stories, not just spear carriers.

In the novel, also published as The Davidian Report, we are yanked into the world of Steve Wintress--or is it Stefan Winterich?--fresh from Berlin. An agent, spy, whatever you wish to call him. He has a ruthless edge but with the patience of a sniper, biding his time till he can get ahold of this all-important document, the McGuffin that propels the action. Davidian is the man he needs to see and the report on him is in the hands of his contact, Albion. But while waiting for Wintress’ diverted plane, Albion is found dead (the titular body on the bench). Our spy then gets thrown in with a dubious crowd, including Haig Armour, who’s from the F.B.I.--or is he? He also meets up with dark little men, thick with accents and scared of the feds (“those Cossacks!”).

The trail for Davidian also leads Wintress to someone he had not wanted to find. The woman.

There’s always a dame.

She was a dancer in Berlin. Well, more than a dancer ... He knows he’s got to get close to her again because he’s certain she knows where Davidian is.

I like the details of Hollywood Boulevard in 1952, when this book was written. The Red Cars were still running in those days and the same chintzy Christmas decorations were hung from lamp posts then as now. And, we discover, men and women in California had abandoned wearing hats in 1952, unlike their East Coast counterparts, and only older women wore overcoats. It’s tidbits such as those that make historical fiction authors like me giddy.

I have an original Dell paperback edition of The Body on the Bench from ’52. I don’t know if there are better copies out there, but there are words and sometimes whole sentences missing from this imprint. Bad copy editing. It’s annoying and a bit confusing, but it’s also not crucial. Whaddya want for 25 cents?

The plot is heavy on dialogue, which is fine by me and also fine for Hollywood. Actor Robert Montgomery, on his TV show Robert Montgomery Presents, produced an episode entitled “The Davidian Report” in November of 1952. With only cursory research, I’m almost willing to bet that it was an episode on television first before it was novelized, or at least novelized at the same time, since the book came out the same year and has the subtitle “The Davidian Report.”

At any rate, this is a top-notch Hughes tale. Set against the backdrop of postwar anxiety, The Body on the Bench strikes a nerve with Cold War murmurs of the Communist threat. What secrets does Davidian know? Where is he? Who wants him? The body on the bench knew, but now he’s dead. More have to die to keep the secrets safe, and in the meantime, get on your running shoes, ’cause you’ll be trotting along with Wintress before time runs out.


KateH said...

A book to look for - as if I need more. But thanks!

Sarah Weinman said...

I have a paperback copy of it as THE DAVIDIAN REPORT, and I agree with Jeri - it's a nifty spy story, very much in the style of Eric Ambler, whom Hughes professed many times to admire a great deal.

Ed Gorman said...

A funny story about Dorothy. Back when I was editing Mystery Scene I convinced her to start writing autobiographical pieces about her life. She did three or four in the course of which we talked on the phone a fair amount. One day I called her and we were talking and somehow we got on to the subject of generational differences. She told me that for instance a few nights previous she'd stumbled in the kitchen and struck her head on something. She fell to the floor on her back, a small amount of blood pooling around her head but she didn't think it was any kind of big deal. She said that her daughter came in then and got all upset and scared. I laughed and said if I'd found my my mother in that situation I'd probably get upset and scared too. I do remember exactly what she said to that. "Oh, hell, you kids."