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
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.