Last year Dorothy B. Hughes made my end-of-year highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. There’s a good chance she’ll make the list again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse was published in 1946, the year before Lonely Place. It’s a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there. I think it’s my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I’ve read this year.
The novel focuses on Sailor, a former street kid turned city slicker who has travelled to a ‘hick town’ near the US border with Mexico in search of the main man, a corrupt state Senator referred to here as ‘the Sen’. While the Sen believes he has finished with Sailor, our protagonist definitely hasn’t finished with Sen. According to Sailor, the Sen owes him a sizeable bundle of money, the remaining payment for a murder that didn’t quite go to plan – and if the Sen refuses to pay up, Sailor thinks he has enough knowledge of what really happened to pin the rap on the Sen. When he gets what’s due to him, Sailor plans to cross the border into Mexico. Once there, he can set up a little business peddling liquor or suchlike, maybe even find a beautiful girl, a silvery blonde with clear, shimmering eyes. All he has to do is to find the Sen and shake him down.
The trouble is, it’s Labor Day weekend, and the town is packed full of people, all there to celebrate the Fiesta. When he arrives on the bus from Chicago, dirty, sweaty and in need of a wash, Sailor is frustrated to discover that all the local hotels are full (even the crummiest ones), leaving him no other option but to bunk down on the ground for the night. Nevertheless, he soon discovers that the Sen is holed up in the smartest hotel in town, the swanky La Fonda complete with its plush bar and fancy restaurant. And so the quest begins, as Sailor confronts the Sen and pushes for his payoff. At first, the Sen is elusive, playing for time while he considers his options. But Sailor is determined; he knows what’s due to him, and he’s out to get it.
He wasn’t going to give up that kind of money. He needed it; it belonged to him; he was going to have it. What was owed and what he deserved above it. Five thousand dollars. The most he’d ever had at one time. Peanuts. He should have asked ten. The dough wouldn’t do the Sen any good where he was going. (p. 172)
To complicate matters further for Sailor, there’s another significant player in the mix – McIntyre (aka ‘Mac’), a Chicago-based cop and long-time acquaintance of Sailor’s, who also happens to be in town, allegedly for the Fiesta. Mac is the wise, down-to-earth type, someone who watches and waits and plays his cards fairly close to his chest. At first, Sailor thinks Mac is trailing the Sen; but as the weekend unfolds, it becomes clear that Mac is keeping tabs on Sailor too, a dynamic that adds another layer of tension to the situation, certainly as far as Sailor is concerned.
If only he could only bust open McIntyre’s head, see what was inside it. If he could only lay out those little squares, like lottery tickets, each one labeled with a name and a thought and a plan. Was his name on the winning ticket, the losing ticket; or was it the Sen’s? He couldn’t ask McIntyre; he could only sit tight and wait. And make talk. (p. 128)
Hughes makes good use of the animated backdrop of the Fiesta, complete with its mix of Spanish, Indian and gringo revellers, thereby conveying the frenetic atmosphere in the local bars and streets. (As one might expect, the novel’s language and racial descriptors reflect the prevailing attitudes of the day.) There are times when Sailor feels caught in a labyrinth, an encircling trap from which there appears to be no escape – a feeling that is reflected in the rather circular nature of the chase as Sailor tries to get what he desires from the Sen.
The streets were whirling louder, faster; on the bandstand a fat black-haired singer blasted the microphones and the crowds screamed ‘Hola! Hola!’ as if it were good. A running child with remnants of pink ice cream glued on his dirty face bumped into Sailor’s legs, wiped his sticky hands there. Sailor snarled, ‘Get out of my way,’ a balloon popped behind him and the kid who held the denuded stick squalled.
He had to get out of this. (pp. 116-117)
On the face of it, the Fiesta appears to be gay and jolly, a time for release and celebration; but below the surface glamour lurks a much darker undercurrent, a terrible note of death and destruction, a hangover from the days of previous crimes against humanity.
Fiesta. The time of celebration, of release from gloom, from the specter of evil. But under celebration was evil; the feast was rooted in blood, in the Spanish conquering of the Indian. It was a memory of death and destruction. (p. 24)
As the story unfolds, we learn more about Sailor and his troubled childhood – in particular, his abusive, alcoholic father, downtrodden mother and the impact of poverty on his formative years. There are echoes of the past here, sights that trigger memories of desperate times and circumstances, things that Sailor would much rather forget.
He knew then what was familiar in her; she was the hopeless face and sagging shoulders and defeated flesh of all poor women everywhere. He wanted to bolt. Even in this small way he did not want to be pushed back into the pit of the past. The pit he believed he had escaped forever. (p. 187)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hughes also excels at capturing the inherent sense of loneliness and alienation that Sailor is experiencing. It’s a quality that also underscores her portrait of Dix Steele, the lone wolf protagonist in her brilliant novel, In a Lonely Place.
What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. (p. 57)
The Sen, on the other hand, emerges as a sly, shadowy figure, a somewhat elusive presence. He is the one who first spotted young Sailor’s talents at the pool hall all those years ago and subsequently groomed him for a key role in his organisation.
As the weekend plays out, it becomes increasingly clear how hard it will be for Sailor to carve out a new life for himself given the nature of what he’s attempting to pull off. There are various points in the story when he could choose to do the right thing, to set himself on a better track for the future – to find out if he decides to take any of these opportunities, you’ll have to read the book. Mac, an honest and decent man at heart, is keen to help Sailor – if only Sailor would agree to talk to him about what really happened on the night of the murder. (In another life, Mac knows that he could have ended up like Sailor, and vice versa, the two men having grown up not far from one another in the same rugged neighbourhood.) Another possibility for redemption comes in the form of old Pancho, the kindly man in charge of the battered fairground carousel, who takes Sailor under his wing, offering him tequila and a blanket for the night while also trying to set him on a straighter path.
Ride the Pink Horse is an excellent noir, one that highlights the existential nature of our existence, how our lives and destinies are largely shaped by our own choices and actions. The title refers to the coloured wooden horses on Pancho’s shabby merry-go-round. It could also be viewed as a metaphor for life itself, e.g. the ups and downs that we all experience as we make our way from the cradle to the grave or a few minutes of enjoyment in which we can forget all our troubles. Either way, it’s an apt title. There’s a film too, directed by and starring Robert Montgomery. I’m hoping to track it down fairly soon.
Ride the Pink Horse was published by Canongate Crime; personal copy.