Thursday, August 28, 2014

Books of 1952: The Davidian Report by Dorothy B. Hughes

This is the first mystery novel by Dorothy B. Hughes that I have read. During her career, she wrote 14 mystery novels, most of them published in the 1940's. She was also a critic of mystery fiction, and wrote a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner. She was named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America in 1978.

I wanted to read one of her better known novels first, Ride the Pink Horse or The So Blue Marble. But I decided to go ahead with this one because it was published in 1952. That turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

Rich Westwood at his blog Past Offences (classic crime reviews and news) has challenged readers to blog about a book or movie from 1952 during the month of August. This review of The Davidian Report is another submission for the 1952 book challenge.

From my readings about the novels by Hughes, there is a lot of variety. The first one, The So Blue Marble, is a novel of suspense with fantastical elements and is set in New York.  Other novels are described as noirish, and several are set in the Southwest, in areas where Hughes lived. This novel is a Cold War spy novel, although it doesn't fit that mold perfectly. I found it very enjoyable and was intrigued from the beginning.

When I am reading novels, I like great characters and an interesting plot. Setting (in time or place) is usually third on my list. I love to read about different settings and learn about places or events in history, but if the characters and plot don't hold up, I lose interest. I would say Hughes, in this book at least, is very strong on characters and setting. The plot is fine, but the author is strongest in the other areas.

It is 1952 and both the protagonist, Steve Wintress, and a fellow passenger on an airplane to Los Angeles, Reuben, have recently left Berlin. Steve is fortyish and an agent for some Communist group. Reuben, a soldier in the army, is very young and on leave. Is it coincidence that they both left Berlin at the same time? On the plane trip to LA, a motley group of people is thrown together.  Steve is seated next to Feather, a very young woman who is a dancer looking to advance her career. The airplane is re-routed to another airport because the LA airport is fogged in and Haig Armour, currently with the Justice Department and "former big noise of the FBI", offers to drive them all to LA in his hired car. Naturally, Steve is suspicious but needs the ride so takes him up on it. Once they arrive in LA, Steve and Reuben are roommates, and Haig insinuates himself into Steve's life.

Steve's goal is to find a man named Davidian who will pass on an important report to him. Of course, Steve is not the only one who wants the report. This is the classic case of not knowing who to trust or if anyone is who they seem to be.

As a fan of the Clothes in Books blog, I have become much more aware of descriptions of clothing in novels. This is the second paragraph in The Davidian Report. Steve is noticing, in detail, the woman in the seat beside him on the airplane.
She was medium size and yellow-haired, her dark green suit was a tweed import; her felt hat was shaped like a riding hat, the kind society girls affect to appear  country; and her suede pumps were the exact color of the darker weft of the tweed. Her purse was large, of good black leather, well rubbed; she protected it against her in the seat. It was big enough to be a formidable barrier between her and a seatmate. She kept her hands gloved, yellow crochet gloves, and she used a five-cent yellow pencil on her book of crossword puzzles. It was a long time since he'd seen anyone as devoted to a crossword puzzle as was this girl.
Clothing can tell you a lot about a person; I love the yellow crochet gloves and the crossword puzzles. In this case, we find that Steve has noted details about all the travelers on the plane. It is just second nature to him.

But the absolute best part was the details about Hollywood and scene on Hollywood Boulevard. The group and various Los Angeles residents they meet up with eat at Musso's.  My husband and I use to go to Hollywood Boulevard years ago, we ate at the Musso and Frank Grill, and I have fond memories of that area. Steve ends up in the neighborhoods around Hollywood Boulevard, which I have never visited. He goes to the Christmas parade. I loved it.

Steve, Reuben, and Feather meet an old flame of Steve's (also from Berlin) at Musso's:
Janni wasn't expensive like Feather. Her raggedy hair was tumbled, her scarlet dress was cheap, and her coat red, the same red coat. She was lucky to have one coat. But she didn't need sleek grooming; she was the quickening of your heart and the racing of your blood.
Janni may be the secret to finding Davidian and his report, if she and Steve can get over their past.

You can probably tell I liked this book. There is much less written about this one than Hughes' other more well known books, so everyone may not have the experience I did.

Some other sources of information about the book and other books by Hughes:

Publisher:  Pyramid, 1964 (Orig. pub. 1952; Also pub. as: The Body on the Bench, Dell, 1955)
Length:  160 pages
Format: paperback
Setting: Hollywood, California 
Genre:  Mystery
Source: purchased my copy


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Fascinating stuff TracyK - I only know her for IN A LONELY PLACE and RIDE THE PIINK HORSE, mainly I suspect because they were turned into decent movies (though not always with great fidelity) - obviously worth hunting a round for a few more!

Anonymous said...

Tracy - I'm glad you enjoyed this. And like you, I'm a fan both of Past Offences and Clothes in Books. This was a really interesting choice for the 1952 challenge! And she's author I don't know much about; thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

I love fortuitous decisions ! Great all round review that has even sparked my interest as a non mystery/crime reader, well done!
Just started a new Zola book today and I will use your 'tip' and observe how Zola describes the clothes in the book. Is the book online?

TracyK said...

Thanks, Sergio. I definitely want to read IN A LONELY PLACE also (and watch the movie). That one I don't have a copy of yet. I want to read all of her books eventually but that will take a while.

TracyK said...

Margot, I did not know much about her until I did some research after reading the book. I was surprised to learn that there was so much variety in her writing.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Nancy. It is amazing how much I notice clothing descriptions now. Or notice when clothing is rarely mentioned.

Most of Hughes' mysteries are published as e-books by Mysterious Press.

w said...

This one sounds great! Excellent review Tracy. I'm glad you read this one because I've never heard of it. I did enjoy her one book as you know. I will make sure to get this one. Again, thanks!! I enjoyed your review.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Tracy, I like your choice of fiction in 1952 including the Ross Macdonald book you reviewed recently. Post-war fiction is fascinating to read because authors experimented with all kinds of plot ideas, especially in the mystery and espionage genres. I have not read Dorothy B. Hughes and fourteen mystery novels is too good to ignore.

neer said...

I too haven't read Hughes though I have heard about her. Love novels where one doesn't know whom to trust so this seems right up my alley. Thanks for the review, Tracy.

Clothes In Books said...

I'm glad you're noticing clothes on my behalf Tracy! Funnily enough, someone recently recommended So Blue Marble to me because of the clothes, so I got hold of that one. But if I like it I will move on to this one: it sounds very good.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Keishon, I am looking forward to reading more of her books. Glad that I found another vintage author that I enjoy.

TracyK said...

Prashant, the really nice thing about the books I read for 1952 was the post-war setting.

TracyK said...

Neer, hope you give one of Hughes' books a try.

TracyK said...

Moira, Penguin a Week blog reviewed the 2nd book by Hughes, The Bamboo Blonde, and said that there was a lot about clothing. So it must be pretty consistent in her books. I hear that The So Blue Marble is almost a fantasy, so I am not sure I will like it, but we will see.

col2910 said...

I read IN A LONELY PLACE last year and didn't think I would read more by her, but I do like the sound of this one. Onto the list it goes!

TracyK said...

I think this one is quite different, Col, but I am no expert on her books.