“Once you have to explain, defend, justify yourself, it hardly matters whether you lie or speak the gospel truth,” explains a minor, marginal character in one of the corners of Tabish Khair’s overstuffed The Thing About Thugs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 24). “Every word rips a bit of you out of yourself and strews it where anyone can trample it.”
The line comes from an Irish sailor choosing to avoid the police; as an opium addict married to a Punjabi woman in 1837 London, he is acutely aware of the danger of being noticed by the straight world. And his justifiable fear of arbitrary authority is at the heart of the wrong-man plot, which drives both Thugs’ historical romance and Dorothy B. Hughes’ mid-century noir The Expendable Man (NYRB Classics, July 3). Both books begin with men who, because of circumstance and especially because of who they are, find themselves cornered and under suspicion for someone else’s crime.
The well-used outlines of the wrong-man plot are obscured in Thugs by the weight of history and race. Set among immigrant Indians in Victorian London and framed not only by fictionalized 19th-century ethnography and pseudoscience but by a modern-day found-document story, Khair’s slim book is crammed full of historical oddments. There’s the ritual murder cult of Thuggee set alongside corpse-stealing British “resurrection men;” a pair of mixed-race romances competing with a detective story, bits of postcolonial theory rubbing up against period gutter slang and multiple narrators expressing themselves, often through multiple typefaces. The effect is both erudite and hyperactive, a breathlessly passionate muddle.
First published in 1963 and just reissued very nicely by the New York Review of Books’ Classics imprint, The Expendable Man uses the outline of its wrong-man plot much more deliberately and single-mindedly, despite the fact that the late crime-fiction writer H.R.F. Keating called the book “one of the great trick novels.” The new jacket copy highlights this quote, though for fear of spoiling the punch of Hughes’ first-act twist NYRB eschews their usual introductory essay in favor of an afterword by Walter Mosley. It’s a wise move: Even though the statute of limitations for spoilers on a 40-year-old story is more than up, it would be a shame to say more than that Hughes’ twist is very skillfully pulled off.
The novel opens with a U.C.L.A. medical intern, Dr. Hugh Densmore, driving through the California desert and choosing against his better judgment to pick up a female hitchhiker. The reasons for his unease aren’t clear, nor is it immediately apparent why he’s unwilling to go to the police after reading about the discovery of her body in a canal.
But when Hughes springs her trap, she does it quickly — in the space of a single word dropped into a conversation — barely a quarter of the way through her story. The offhand comment snaps the free-floating dread of the novel’s opening into sharp focus. It’s a testament to Hughes’ skill that the twist doesn’t derail The Expendable Man, instead sharpening its atmospheric suspense into a much better-defined, almost existential hopelessness.
But as well-executed as The Expendable Man’s noir mechanics are, it’s the genre’s license to explore dark corners and soft, white underbellies that makes the book worth reprinting and rereading. No matter how carefully plot twists are protected, it’s impossible to recapture the novelty and surprise of this variation on innocence and injustice.
If we’re more comfortable now than when Hughes was writing with the notion that plot-driven entertainment can carry the weight of serious social concerns, that makes this particular book an especially effective window on the past. Rather than glossing the most lurid, shocking details from yellowed newspapers, Hughes’ carefully workmanlike pulp transforms history into a noir nightmare.