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Friday, August 27th, 2004


The Blackbirder (Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp)


A review by Charles Taylor

Fans of genre fiction owe a debt of thanks to the editors at the City University of New York's Feminist Press for the entries in their series "Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp." They've republished two books by Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place, the basis for the classic Nicholas Ray noir with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, and The Blackbirder, a wartime espionage tale. If we're lucky, they won't stop there.

The Blackbirder appeared in 1943 and, as plenty of books and movies did at the time, was punctuated by speeches meant to rouse the audience into an anti-Nazi fervor: "He could never have learned to live in a world dedicated to love of thy neighbor. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Man is created free and equal. Not some men — Man ... There could never be any answer but to help achieve that peace. Even if it took a million years for it to come to pass, her own small effort would speed the day." The speech is a cue for the conventional manner in which the plot ties itself up, with the heroine sworn to continue the anti-fascist fight. The heroes of the 1940s were Victor Laszlo, one and all. But the atmosphere Hughes builds up before that climax partakes of a fear and an uncertainty that make those moments of grandiloquent heroism seem like empty show.

A friend of mine who was a boy in the '40s told me he never got over the end of World War II. During the war, he explained, he had a neighborhood; after, there were just a bunch of people living in close proximity. For Julie, a French Resistance fighter hiding out in wartime Manhattan, the war offers no sense of community. Keeping to herself, having no friends, no lovers, Julie fears every lingering look from a waiter, every odd car parked on her block. When an old acquaintance from Europe approaches Julie after a concert, and then winds up dead outside her apartment, she takes off on a cross-country trek that ends in New Mexico, amid a plot to smuggle refugees across the border.

What matters in The Blackbirder is the almost suffocating sense of isolation and paranoia. Some of Hughes' finest writing comes in the hours after that opening murder, as Julie tries to make it out of Manhattan. Whether Hughes is writing of Julie on a dead-of-night subway platform, a crowded department store where she tries to hide her bloodstained coat while she acquires a new wardrobe, the women's changing room at Penn Station, the sleeper car of a westbound train where she finds refuge, there is a dread of imminent discovery hanging over the book.

After a while, what you're reading begins to feel less like a description of someone hiding out from enemy agents (and we're not even sure if there are any) than a nightmare version of what life will be like if the Allies lose. It's a vision of life in which contact with others has been cut off; revealing who you are or thinking of what you might be is impossible. It's a world in which motive and identity are hidden, smothered — and betrayal is always a possibility. The heroine of Hughes' thriller can't trust anyone. For her it's as if the Nazis had stepped into the shoes of Pullman porters, coffee-shop patrons, passengers in club cars, taxi drivers. "She didn't like this questioning," begins one passage that makes the paranoia explicit. "Maybe he was a naive young British flyer; maybe not. Gestapo agents, disguised above suspicion, had been instrumental in placing Fran in internment. There were Germans who could pass for British in Whitehall..." And so The Blackbirder becomes, in some way, the story of the last free woman left alive.

The arc of Hughes' tale is, of course, how Julie discovers her allies in the fight. The meat of it is in Hughes' masterstroke: setting in free, wartime America the kind of story that has only been done in the setting of Germany or occupied France — and making the feeling and fear of living an entirely secret life no less real. The Blackbirder is unaccountably powerful.

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