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dread journey

13 may 2022

Dread Journey (1945) is a ferrovial potboiler in the line of descent from Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) to Strangers on a Train (1950). Dorothy B. Hughes' novel was never filmed, though. Sarah Weinman suggests, in her introduction to the 2019 Penzler edition, that Hughes' "observations about Hollywood are too pointed" (v), but Hollywood thrives on metaHollywood, and the keenest jabs in the book could have been blunted for the screen, as so much other source material was.

Maybe it's the too-linear nature of Dread Journey, and its overpopulated compartments; maybe it's the way so many of the book's insights are presented through a reflector-character, James Cobbett, an African-American Pullman porter. Still, there's a good movie in here somewhere, and maybe it will finally be made in the 2020s, as a period piece.

Hughes' use of Cobbett as master observer prefigures her later important novel The Expendable Man (1963), where a black doctor is enmeshed in a wrong-man murder mystery. But where The Expendable Man is a wide-ranging, schematic analysis of race prejudice, Dread Journey is less ambitious. Cobbett is a pure observer, not intervening much more in the plot than he does in the compartments he tends.

No, Dread Journey is all Hollywood noir, though none of it takes place there. Instead we are on "the great Chief," forging from Los Angeles to Chicago, carrying a constellation of murderous hatreds and a couple of characters who won't balk at realizing that hate into homicide.

Kitten Agnew is the discarded mistress of studio titan Viv Spender. In his early infatuation with her, Spender made the mistake of signing an unbreakable contract, guaranteeing Agnew the epic role of Clavdia Chauchat – who, as the back of the book had to inform me, is a central character in The Magic Mountain. Serves me right for ignoring Thomas Mann all these decades.

Both Agnew and Spender's love-starved secretary Mike Dana know two things: that Spender is fixing, contract be damned, to replace Agnew in the picture with his newest discovery, the naïve Gratia Shawn. And that Spender killed his late wife with an overdose of sleeping pills. If Agnew doesn't relent and tear up her contract, Spender is likely to send her to an overly sound sleep, as well.

Of course all four of these characters are on the train, within a few compartments of one another. But there are also some others, who circulate around the novel's main complications while, unfortunately, adding little to the drama. Bandleader Les Augustin, journalist Hank Cavanaugh, and novelist-turned-failed-screenwriter Sidney Pringle all barge in and out of one another's compartments and interact in various ways with Spender and the three women.

Thus some of the problems that slow down Dread Journey, though they never stop it in its tracks. Cavanaugh and Pringle are too similar – both are disillusioned left-wing writers who take an instant dislike to Spender and want to bring him down. Augustin has even less to do in the story, though Hughes dwells on him more. I collect from vague hints in the text that she may have been trying to write Augustin as a gay character, but couldn't really bring that off in 1945, and didn't want to spend time on the kind of homosocial attraction that could be the matrix for a subplot, either.

As a result, Augustin seems to be in the book only to provide another compartment for characters to meet in. And meet they do, holding portentous conversations all the way from Needles to Dodge City. Dread Journey gets talky, but every now and then the central conflict in the novel generates good action. It is still a worthwhile entertainment after nearly 80 years.

Hughes, Dorothy B. Dread Journey. 1945. New York: Penzler, 2019.