I’ve written before of my fondness for the novels of Dorothy B. Hughes – most notably, her noir classic In a Lonely Place (published in 1947) and her ‘wrong place, wrong time’ thriller The Expendable Man (1963). If anything, The Blackbirder (1943) falls somewhere between the two with its noirish atmosphere and breakneck pace. It’s also very good indeed, a gripping thriller set in the midst of WW2 as a young woman tries to figure out who she can trust in a shadowy, uncertain world.
The novel opens in New York, where Julie Grille (aka Juliet Marlebone) is currently residing following her flight from occupied Paris and her Nazi-sympathiser uncle some three years earlier. In essence, Julie is an illegal immigrant; her entry into the country by way of Cuba, making her status precarious to say the least. Consequently, she has been trying to keep a low profile, possibly until the war is over or the situation settles down.
One night, after a concert, Julie spots an old acquaintance, a man names Maxl whom she knew a little in Paris. Unfortunately for Julie, her attempts to hide from Maxl prove fruitless, and she is drawn into a conversation with him in the lobby of Carnegie Hall. Right from the start, there is a strong sense of tension to the narrative as Maxl coerces Julie into joining him for a drink. Can Julie trust him? It’s hard for her to tell…
The door was there now but she didn’t step through it. Maxl’s yellow pigskin glove restrained her arm.
‘You must have a drink with me. Talk over other days – the good days…’
The walk on this side of 57th Street was crowded. Buses and cabs blocked the street. The pigskin glove swerved her to the corner. Unbelievably, there was an empty cab. She didn’t know if the meeting were accidental. If it were, it would direct suspicion if she refused. No one was suspicious of her in New York. No known person. (p. 3)
At the bar, Julie becomes increasingly convinced that the waiter is observing her. Once again, our protagonist is unsure as to whether she is really being watched or if it’s just her natural sense of suspicion kicking in.
The situation rapidly escalates when Maxl accompanies Julie to her home in a taxi. Moments after being dropped off, Julie finds Maxl’s body on the ground outside her apartment. He has been shot dead, murdered by an unknown assassin in the blink of an eye. Julie knows she will be a suspect in the case, and with her status as an illegal immigrant she can ill afford to get tangled up with the police. As a consequence, Julie searches Maxl’s body for any papers, finds his notebook, and heads off as quickly as she can, leaving all her possessions behind in a flight for freedom. Following a change of clothes and her appearance in general, Julie heads by train to Albuquerque, eventually landing in Santa Fe where she hopes to find the Blackbirder, a man who traffics individuals across the border between the US and Mexico – Mexico being seen as something of a safe haven in light of the developments.
In essence, Maxl’s murder acts as a catalyst in the novel, propelling Julie on an adrenaline-fuelled journey across the US, during which she feels under threat from both the Gestapo and the FBI. It’s a story in which the central protagonist can trust no one, where it remains virtually impossible for her (and the reader) to distinguish clearly between friend and foe.
When Julie meets a man named Blaike on the train to New Mexico – a man who also claims to have known her in Paris – she is unsure of his integrity. Is Blaike a former RAF officer as he claims? Is he a Gestapo agent, looking to use Julie as a way of infiltrating the resistance network? Or does he work for the FBI, an organisation likely to be on the Blackbirder’s trail? Once again, it proves difficult to tell, especially as this individual’s motives seem far from black or white.
There are other shadowy individuals in the mix, too. In Maxl’s notebook, Julie finds a reference to someone named Popin, also located in New Mexico. Could this be the same Popin who helped Julie’s cousin, Fran, a man currently being held in an internment camp after being framed by the Gestapo? Julie is determined to find out. Then there is Schein, a man who knows Julie was with Maxl on the night of his murder – he is, in fact, the waiter from the bar where the pair had their drink. Julie strongly suspects Schein to be a Nazi, so his presence at Popin’s house proves all the more disturbing.
What is so impressive about this novel is the sense of tension Hughes creates, capturing the intense feelings of paranoia and uncertainty that must have been prevalent at that time. The pace rarely lets up as one development after another propels the story forward.
She took another peer backward. No car was following. Their own, piloted by the silent young Indian, moved on and on into the night and the storm. Again she felt that frightening isolation from all of remembered reality. Actually where was she? Where was she going? (p. 93)
The characterisation too is very impressive – particularly Julie, who is portrayed as sharp and quick-witted yet also afraid for her life. She is immensely engaging; someone the reader can relate to in a time of crisis.
Moreover, the novel successfully captures the various nuances at play – in terms of both the characters and the situations they face.
This was why the F.B.I. was searching for the Blackbirder. They couldn’t chance the entrance of dangerous aliens among honest refugees. Nor the escape of dangerous aliens over the same route. Somehow she hadn’t thought of it that way. The Blackbirder to her had been only a shadowy figure of refuge. He was still that but a sinister blackness darkened his shadow. His helping wings could be abused. She shook away the tremor. (p. 146)
In summary, this is an absorbing, fast-paced thriller in which individuals’ motives are never entirely transparent; Ms Hughes will keep the reader guessing right to the very end.
The Blackbirder is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.