Friday 24 January 2020

Forgotten Book - Dread Journey

Dorothy B. Hughes was a first-rate writer, and my admiration for In a Lonely Place is unbounded. So when, in the splendid second hand bookshop at Carnforth, I spotted a copy of her 1945 novel Dread Journey, I couldn't resist. It's a book in which the action takes place during a long train journey, and really it blends elements from women-in-jeopardy novels and Murder on the Orient Express (but there's no snowdrift...)

I should say at the start that, although it's a well-written book, I struggled with the basic premise. Kitten Agnew, a shallow actress is terrified (and with good reason) that the wealthy Hollywood mogul Viv Spender intends to kill her during the course of the journey. Spender is a sociopath with a long track record of mistreating women, and his previous interest in Kitten has cooled - he's now turned his attention to someone else. But despite knowing that her life is at risk, Kitten wants to marry him, and persists in provoking him. Why? I wanted to scream. For all Hughes' skill, I unable to suspend my disbelief in the fundamental set-up of the story, and that was a drawback.

There are, however, some very strong elements in the story. The portrayal of Spender is interesting in the #MeToo era; one might conclude that Hughes, who knew about Hollywood men, was making a point that is not only powerful but unfortunately of enduring relevance. Her writing still resonates today. And her presentation of a black character who plays a significant part in the storyline is equally interesting and ahead of its time.

So there is much to enjoy in this book, recently reprinted by Otto Penzler in the US and thus readily obtainable, even if I don't rate it as highly as some critics do. But I'm certainly glad I read it. Hughes was not only a talented writer but a thought-provoking one.


J F Norris said...

Never finished this book. I had problems with it just like you. Kitten Agnew seemed utterly mindless to me. The characters seemed too much like tiresome caricatures of show biz people to me. It felt like a darker version of the movie Twentieth Century minus all the farce and caustic wit. I just couldn't get into it at all and didn't care about any of the characters despite its being rather timely in the #MeToo era. The American married couple who are probably intended to be satirical targets of bored tourists were more interesting to me and they appeared on only five pages of what I managed to read. I thought it would be one of my nominees for Reprint of the Year but it doesn't stand up to Hughes' better books which are focussed on everyday terror like The So Blue Marble, The Fallen Sparrow and The Cross-Eyed Bear all of which still do an admirable job of instilling real fear in the reader.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, John. I think I've got an unread copy of The Fallen Sparrow somewhere, must dig it out.

Ted said...

I read this book about twelve years ago. Usually I love train mysteries, but this one was a chore to plod through. I was never so happy to finish a book so I could start a better one.