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ride the pink horse

27 may 2023

In Ride the Pink Horse, Dorothy B. Hughes bets on readers being able to sympathize with a racist hired killer, at least to the extent that we'll listen to the guy for a couple of hundred pages: he's the narrator.

It's touch and go. Sailor, the narrator, is very racist, using all the epithets that you could print in 1946. Hughes herself was far from racist: her novel The Expendable Man is one of the most anti-racist thrillers written by a white writer in the 20th century. But she wouldn't write it for another 17 years; and even if she'd written it before Ride the Pink Horse, one would have to confront each novel on its own terms, not draft along on the effect of a different text.

Not long after Ride the Pink Horse, Hughes would write In a Lonely Place, which expects us to sympathize with a pathologically-lying serial killer. She was mainly a writer who enjoyed a good challenge.

And it isn't long into Ride the Pink Horse before we see even the horrible Sailor listening with respect to the anti-racist rhetoric of a Latino merry-go-round attendant who befriends him. "Pancho," as Sailor dubs him, calls Sailor a good man, simply because Sailor has bought a ride on the title equine for the 14-year-old Indian girl Pila, without trying to abuse the girl sexually. It's a low bar for goodness but Sailor hadn't even thought of crawling under it. He's wise to the perils of the streets and just wishes for the girl to have some innocent fun while she can.

Sailor has come from his native Chicago to a New Mexico town much like Santa Fe, during its Fiesta, on the trail of a Senator whose wife has recently died. Been killed, that is, and Sailor was somehow involved in the murder, though it's complicated; now Sailor is determined to blackmail the Senator for whatever he can get. Also in town is a Chicago homicide detective named McIntyre. Sailor respects McIntyre, and knows that he's not just a danger but a potential rival. Sailor has to get the dough before McIntyre gets the Senator, or him, or both.

The murder-mystery elements of Ride the Pink Horse are very well crafted, a feature of all of Hughes' crime fiction. She reveals just enough about the crime to keep you misdirected, but never so much that you feel snowed under by exposition.

The narrator's rhetoric … I don't think that Hughes quite succeeds. She wants to make her tough, bad white antihero believable, so she makes him hideous; and the reader then has to chew through the hideousness. Even when "Pancho," or Don José as he's rightly called, gives his anti-colonial set speech (64-71), he does so in a broken English that draws attention to the normative features of the standard dialect that Sailor can shift into when he's in his own mind without the imperative to act like a gangster.

Sailor really does some thinking along the way to his sticky end, though. At one point, entirely to himself, he muses about the diverse crowds at Fiesta:

The older folks cranked up smiles or words, but not the kids. The old folks pretended that Fiesta made all a oneness in the land, Indian, Mexican, Gringo. The kids didn't hide their knowledge of the enemy among them. They were too smart. (178-179)
It's a knowledge that, tragically, American kids have had to keep bringing to the fore, in the 1960s, the 1990s, the 2020s. If Dorothy Hughes expressed it awkwardly, she still offered a powerful insight.

Hughes, Dorothy B. Ride the Pink Horse. 1946. New York: Penzler, 2021.