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by Bamber Gascoigne

Dorothy B(elle) Hughes (1904-1993) - original surname Flanagan


American mystery writer, who also had a career as a critic. Dorothy B. Hughes wrote fourteen crime and mystery novels. Her best-known works include Ride the Pink Horse (1946) and In a Lonely Place (1947), perhaps Hughes's greatest novel. For her criticism Hughes won a 1950 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Hughes lived and worked in New Mexico for the majority of her life. A central theme in several of her stories was racism

"He didn't follow her at once. Actually, he didn't intend to follow her. It was entirely without volition that he found himself moving down the slant, winding walk. He didn't walk hard, as she did, nor did he walk fast. Yet she heard him coming behind her. He knew she heard him for her heel struck an extra beat, as if she had half stumbled, and her steps went faster. He didn't walk faster, he continued to saunter but he lenghtened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid." (from In a Lonely Place)

Dorothy Belle Hughes (née Flanagan) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. She has told that from the age of six, when she learned to write words, she knew she would be a writer. Hughes studied journalism at the University of Missouri, from which she received a B.J. in 1924. She did graduate work at the University of New Mexico and also attended Columbia University in New York. Before starting her career as a mystery writer, Hughes worked as a journalist in Missouri, New York and New Mexico. In 1932 she married Levi Allan Hughes, Jr., who came from an old Santa Fe family. They had two daughters and one son.

Hughes's first published book, Dark Certainty (1931), was a collection of poems. It received an award from the Yale Series of Younger poets. Her first novel, The So Blue Marble (1940), was set in New York. Hughes dedicated this book to her mother, "who will not read mysteries, and her brother, "who first introduced me to them". The protagonist, Griselda Satterlee, is a fashion designer, who is drawn into a violent quest for a missing treasure – a tiny blue marble that contains "hieroglyphs telling the secrets of the greatest lost civilization, of the day when the sun was harnessed, as we would like to harness it, when gravitation was controlled as we haven't dreamed of controlling it."

Will Cuppy called the work "glittering, but not hard-boiled." Hughes's understated style was partly a result of hard editing – her first editor demanded a cut of 25,000 words from the manuscript and eliminated most of the story's unrealistic elements. The So Blue Marble had preceded several unpublished works, but after it Hughes began delivering, on average, a book a year until 1952, when she stopped publishing novels for eleven years. Her second novel, The Cross-Eyed Bear (1940) has a female hero, Lizanne Steffasson, and a rich Finnish family with the name of Viljaas, which is not a common, or even uncommon, surname in Finland. Griselda and her husband Con are brought back in The Bamboo Blonde (1941). 

Hughes also wrote the history of the University of New Mexico. After marrying she made her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, using Southwest for backgroud in the novels. Around 1944, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Hughes worked for the studios.

"But as his head turned, he saw the girl. She was just stepping off the bus. She couldn't see him because he was no more than a figure in the fog and dark; she couldn't know he was drawing her on his mind as on a piece of paper." (from In a Lonely Place)

At the time of writing In a Lonely Place the family lived in Santa Monica, at the bottom of the California Incline. "She didn't drive, so she took the bus home late at night," her daughter Suzy Sarna has recalled. "The bus would drop her at the top of the Incline and she'd walk down to the house. Every night, it was dark, foggy and scary, which is how she got the idea for the book." " ('Dames of letters' by David L. Ulin, in Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2004) Hughes's husband spent much time in New Mexico, taking care of the family business. While in L.A. he played golf. In the early 1960s, Hughes returned to Santa Fe with him.

Three of Hughes's novel's were successfully made into films: The Fallen Sparrow (1942), starring John Garfied, Ride the Pink Horse, directed by Robert Montgomery, and In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray. "Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North wrote the terrific, unusual script, which includes sharp dialogue and some peculiar secondary characters. Grahame (who was about to get her divorce from Ray) and Bogart (playing his rare tough guy who wants to get married) are an exciting couple. Onetime "sleeper" film has come to be regarded as one of Bogart's classics." (Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Perry, 1986, p. 208)

Ride the Pink Horse was set against the fiesta background of a small New Mexico town, called "San Pablo", where Robert Montgomery, a war veteran, tracks down a war profiteer, who has been responsible for the murder of his friend. Portions of the film were shot on location in Santa Fe. The city of Taos was paid $2,000 to ship "Tio Vivo", its 1882 carousel, to the Universal studios in California. Ben Hecht's name was omitted from the screen credits in England because of his critical remarks about British military presence in Palestine. Though the original script was approved by the Production Code Administration (PCA), an independent producer complained to the Breen Office about "excessive" drinking in the picture. Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix, and Thomas Gomez, who played a carousel operator, reprised their roles in a Radio Lux Theatre version of the novel in 1947. Don Siegel remade the story in 1964 for TV as The Hanged Man, but set it in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

Nicholas Ray's adaptation of In a Lonely Place softened the story, but it is still unpredictable and unforgettable film noir. Humphrey Bogart played Dixon Steele, an ex-GI, with a dangerous temper. "The war years were the first happy years he'd ever known," wrote Hughes in the novel. Steele is trying to make a comeback as a successful screenwriter. The police thinks he is the murderer of a hatcheck girl he invited to his apartment on the night she was killed. Steele's neighbour Laurel (Gloria Grahame) tells the police that she saw the girl leave alone. Steele and Laurel fall in love, but gradually she starts to suspect that Steele killed the girl. The subtext is about the hunt for Communist in the film industry at the time, but it also contain such existential line as "I was born when she kissed me; I died when she left men; I lived a few weeks while she loved me." Steele is a psychopathic serial killer in Hughes's novel, but in the film he kills no one, he only comes close to strangling Laurel to death. Most of the narrative, the police don't suspect Steele.

Many critics called In a Lonely Place one of the best pictures of Bogart's career. The New York Times said: "Although Steele is callous, insulting and vicious in his dark, ugly moods, he can be tender and considerate under the influence of love. . . . Mr. Bogart plays the role for all it's worth, giving a manical fury to his rages and a hard edge to his expressions of sympathy." (Bogart by Ann Sperber, 2011, p. 435) Hughes's daughter Suzy Sarna has told that  book scared her mother so much that when it was foggy and dark she was afraid to go outside to hang laundry.

At the peak of her career Hughes stopped writing novels, explaining that her domestic responsibilities made writing difficult: her mother was ill, she was taking care of her grandchildren, and she simply hadn't the tranquillity to sit down and write. From 1940 to 1979 she reviewed mysteries for the Albuquerque Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Herald-Tribune and other newspapers. In 1978 Hughes was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. She won her second Edgar Allan Poe award for her critical biography, Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason (1978), which came out eight years after Gardner's death. Hughes died of complications from a stroke, on May 6, 1993, at her home in Ashland, Oregon.

Hughes produced relatively few short stories during her career – there is no "The Collected Short Stories of Dorothy B. Hughes". The style of 'The Black and White Blues' (1959), about jazz music, extortion, and racial hatred, was praised by the critic and mystery writer Bill Pronzini in American Pulp (1997, edited by Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini, Martin H. Greenberg). In the story, set in Missouri, a young white girl asks a black musician, a clarinet player, to drive her home after the band has finished its gig. She admires his car, a cream color Chrysler, sees that he has much money, and a big diamond ring. When he kisses her she wipes her mouth and cries: "You dirty nigger. They'll lynch you for this. They'll lynch you!" To keep her silent the musician gives her the diamond ring. "Manager is pretty mad. That good clarinet-paying Negro went back to Chicago. Gave up his job and went back. Didn't say why, just acted kinda nervous. Didn't want to stay no more. Fritz, the orchestra owner, was pretty mad. Clarinet Negro borrowed some money offa him to go."

Most of Hughes's detective fiction centers around outsiders, haunted loners, or upper-class characters involved in evil intrigues. She also wrote a story, 'Horatio Ruminates,' narrated by a cat. In The Fallen Sparrow (1942) the protagonist is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Kit McKittrick. Back home in the United States after escaping from a Fascist prison, he finds himself facing again his traumatic experiences, when his war buddy Louie has been murdered. Kit seeks to avenge Louie's death. John Garfield was excellent in the film version of The Fallen Sparrow, but he was not RKO's first choice for the part of Kit - James Gagney, Cary Grant, and Randolph Scott were offered it first. Hughes's Spanish angle was watered down in the film. Kit describes his mission as a "personal battle between me and the little man in Berlin." (He Ran All the Way: The Life of John Garfield by Robert Nott, 2003,  p. 153)

The Expendable Man (1963) appeared in the middle of the civil rights battle. It became famous for its sudden twist of the plot, revealed in one sentence after some fifty pages. H.R.F. Keating has called in Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987) the work as one of the great trick novels of crime fiction. Hugh Densmore, a young doctor, drives his parents' white Cadillac between Los Angeles and Phoenix, Arizona. He reluctantly picks up a young girl wanting a lift. After a girl resembling the one whom Dr Densmore gave the lift has been found dead, Detective Venner questions the hero, who is the first person the police suspect. "We got a tip," he says. "Right after that report went out on the radio. This guy says a nigger doctor driving a big white Cadillac brought Bonnie Lee to Phoenix." Hughes did not mention before that Dr Densmore was black, and now the reader understands that his situation and earlier small paranoid attitudes has much to do with racial issues.

Geoffrey O'Brien said of Hughes's work: "But lyricism they had, these novels, with their rain and shadow and Park Avenue and Madison Avenue suddenly places of fear, and with their sudden eruptions of dream material into an orderly salon (the poet's legacy). Maybe no one will ever be frightened by her books again, but they will perhaps be remained of a surrounding world – the one she wrote in – far more frightening than her own childlike, sometimes magical, adventures." (Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, 1997, p. 97) Hughes herself acknowledged her debt to such writers as Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and William Faulkner. The Fallen Sparrow was dedicated to Ambler. 

For further reading: 'The Dark-Skinned "Angels" of Dorothy B. Hughes's Thrillers' by  Lawrence J. Oliver, Jr., Melus, Vol. 11, No. 3, (Autumn, 1984); 'Hughes, Dorothy B(elle, nèe Flanagan' by Nancy C. Joyner, in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John B, Reilly (1985); 'Hughes, Dorothy B[elle Flanagan], in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery by Bruce Murphy (2002); 'Fever Pitch' by Ariel Swartley, in Los Angeles Magazine, May (2004); Darkly Perfect World: Colonial Adventure, Postmodernism, and American Noir by Stanley Orr (2010)

Selected works:

  • Dark Certainty, 1931 (poems)
  • Pueblo on the Mesa: The First Fifty Years of the University of New Mexico, 1939
  • The Cross-Eyed Bear, 1940
  • The So Blue Marble, 1940
    - Sininen marmoripallo (suom. Seija Paavilainen, 1970)
  • The Bamboo Blonde, 1941
    - Malja kuolemalle (suom. Niilo Idman, 1944)
  • An Omnibus of Terror: Three Mysteries, 1942
  • The Fallen Sparrow, 1942
    - Film 1943, prod. RKO Radio Pictures, dir. Richard Wallace, screenplay Warren Duff, starring John Garfield, Maureen O'Hara, Walter Slezak
  • The Blackbirder, 1943 (afterword by Amy Villarejo, 2004)
  • The Delicate Ape, 1944
  • Johnnie, 1944
  • Dread Journey, 1945
  • Ride the Pink Horse, 1946
    - Karuselli (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1996)
    - Film 1947, prod. Universal International Pictures (UI), dir. Robert Montgomery, screenplay by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, Joan Harrison uncredited, starring Robert Montgomery, Thomas Gomez, Wanda Hendrix, Andrea King. TV film 1950, in Robert Montgomery Presents, prod. Neptune Productions, adaptation Robert Cenadella, with Robert Montgomery, Thomas Gomez and Burgess Meredith. Remade in 1964 for TV as The Hanged Man, adaptation Jack Laird, Stanford Whitmore, dir. by Don Siegel, starring Robert Culp, Edmond O'Brien and Vera Miles
  • The Scarlet Imperial, 1946 (as Kiss for a Killer, 1954)
  • In a Lonely Place, 1947 (afterword by Lisa Maria Hogeland, 2003)
    - Yksinäisessä paikassa (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1981)
    - Film 1950, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, Santana Pictures Corporation, screenplay Andrew Solt, dir. Nicholas Ray, starring Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy
  • The Big Barbecue, 1949
  • The Candy Kid, 1950
    - TV film 1958, Spider Web, in Climax!, prod. CBS Television Network, adaptation Charles Hoffman, dir. Buzz Kulik, starring Herbert Anderson, Fernando Lamas and William Lundigan
  • The Davidian Report: A Novel of Suspense, 1952 (as The Body on the Bench, 1955)
  • The Expendable Man, 1963 (afterword by Walter Mosley, 2012)
    - Loppuunajettu (suom. Pauli A. Kopperi, 1967)
  • Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason, 1978
  • In a Lonely Place, 2003 (afterword by Lisa Maria Hogeland)
  • The Blackbirder, 2004 (afterword by Amy Villarejo)
  • The Expendable Man, 2012 (afterword by Walter Mosley)
  • In a Lonely Place, 2017 (afterword by Megan Abbott)
  • Dread Journey, 2019 (introduction by Sarah Weinman)

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