August 2008. Wingate Field in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The place is packed with people who’ve come to see Erykah Badu perform in the free Martin Luther King Jr. concert series held here every summer. Badu has spent the show abruptly changing numbers midsong, baiting the cops patrolling the field, following a radar detectable only to her. Suddenly, as if mimicking that moment when, after flipping a radio dial, a station comes in loud and clear, Badu says that “we” all pray for President Obama, and the static disappears. Election day is three months away, but Badu is speaking as if Obama has won. In her mind, he already has. In that moment, every secret hope and fear in the place is out in the open. The audience, overwhelmingly black, is caught balancing on the thinnest knife’s edge, unable to ignore what the election of Barack Obama would mean about the possibilities of American life, not wanting to think about how distant and cruel those missed possibilities would seem if he lost. The mixture of hope and dread is nearly unbearable.
July 1964, another election year. The Cow Palace in San Francisco. John Chancellor is covering the Republican National Convention for NBC. He’ll be arrested for refusing to give up his place on the floor to the Goldwater Girls, a preview of how the press will be treated at the other party’s convention four years later. Making the rounds, Chancellor finds an elderly black man at the back of the arena, standing by himself and weeping, repeating the words “all my life, all my life.” The man has remained true to what he believes is still the party of Lincoln, the party without the Southern wing that’s been obstructing civil rights legislation for years. He says he’s been a Republican his whole life. Chancellor looks at the man and sees that his suit is covered with holes where Goldwater delegates have ground out their cigarettes.
In Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1963 novel The Expendable Man, it’s the summer before that Republican convention, and a young intern named Hugh Densmore is driving from his medical residency in Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. Everything about Hugh radiates stability, responsibility, order: the discipline that comes from adherence to routine. Oversleeping on the morning he’s meant to chauffeur his mother on errands, he conducts his ablutions as if a NASA launch depended on it: “Five minutes to shower and shave, five to dress—slacks, sport shirt, loafers. He’d learned in the hospital not to dawdle.” At the wedding celebration he meets Ellen, a beautiful young student preparing for diplomatic service. Hugh has been set up with Ellen by his family, but he resists the attraction growing between them because any serious romance has to wait until he has paid back his family for med school and established himself as a doctor. Even ordering at a drive-in on the way to Phoenix, Hugh makes his choices—a BLT and iced coffee, because it’s hot outside—less out of instinct than sensible deliberation. In other words, he’s the perfect noir patsy.
How is that possible for a character who’s such a paragon of common sense? In noir, as in low comedy, the patsies are usually the ones suckered by their own base instincts. This is the genre where stiff dicks and empty pockets override every other sensible consideration. Partly it’s that Hughes, in what would be her last novel, is writing a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time story. Like another Hughes character, Dix Steele, the writer of In a Lonely Place, or Julie Guilles, the Resistance agent hiding out in postwar Manhattan in The Blackbirder, Hugh is the innocent who comes under suspicion, the straight arrow who finds himself in a place where all the safety valves for law-abiding citizens have been shut off. Hugh doesn’t just have to prove his innocence; he has to learn a much harder lesson—those safety valves were never there for him in the first place.