Dorothy B. Hughes is a well-known hardboiled and noir writer from the 1940’s. Thanks to Mysterious Press for keeping these books in print and available. She had 3 films made from her books: The Fallen Sparrow, Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place where all made in the classic film noir era. I hope to review all three of these films at some point on this site.
Dread Journey is not as well-known as some of her other work and I actually choose this as my first Hughes book simply because it was on sale for little to nothing on my Nook when I was looking at her books. This book is short, only 140 pages, but very dense, this is not an easy read.
This book is original in a lot of ways, the structure is not your typical murder mystery by any means. This story takes place on a train called the Chief that is going from Los Angeles east to New York. The train is full of entertainment types traveling for work.
The motley crew of characters include:
James Cobbett is a service man for the train and is there for everybody’s beck and call.
Les Augustin an orchestra leader, maybe to smart for his own good.
Hank Cavahaugh an alcoholic newspaper man who still has some pull.
Sidney Pringle was a tie salesman that wrote a book, and it has done fairly well.
Gratia is the beautiful fresh face that everybody is falling in love with and is innocent to the entertainment business.
Viv Spender, the rich and powerful film mogul.
Kitten Agnew is the famous starlet that is also Viv’s current girlfriend and muse.
Mike is Viv’s personal secretary and has been in love with Viv for years, though she is a plain-looking girl and does not catch Viv’s eye.
The interesting part of this story is we don’t have a murder towards the beginning of the story like most who done its. This story revolves around Kitten, who know’s Viv has destroyed or killed his last muses when he was done with them. She knows she is being replaced by Gratia, the new face that Viv has fallen in love with, though Gratia does not know this yet. Kitten is smart and has used lawyers and contracts to make sure she will not be easily fired by Viv and his company. She now realizes that the only way Viv is getting rid of her is killing her. She is scared for her life so she surrounds herself with Hank, Sidney, and Les for protection on the trip. Mike knows that Viv has killed his muses before, but because she has been loyal to him for years, she doesn’t know what to do in this situation. James is our outside perspective of this whole situation.
Will Viv or Kitten win this battle of smarts and murder. Will they all make it to New York, who will not make it? This starts out a little slow as we learn about our characters and how they interact. It’s a slow burn that turns into an inferno in the last third of the book. I liked the originality of the book and think this would have made a great moody film noir in its day, but its first 100 pages of slow build up was a little too much for me. Worth checking out for Hughes fans and I wish I would have went with one of her more popular books first instead of this one.