THE CHARACTERS: Kennedy makes for an interesting fish out of water, accidental detective. He's only trying to do his job, but he never expects to become police consultant and a neophyte forensic pathologist. But he finds himself needling and cajoling the lackadaisical Sheriff Tibetty interested only in preserving his reputation as a peacekeeper and intent on winning the next election by not pursuing a possible capital crime among his citizens. Later in the book Kennedy finds one of his only allies in Dr. Nelson, an eccentric physician who acts as the town's coroner. Nelson's fascinating speech patterns are peppered with cryptic wisdom and Confucian epigrams. Kennedy is meant to be one of the few voices of reason in Stranger on a Highway (1943). Surrounded by the motley crew of outspoken, mercurial inhabitants of Stubblestone the novel reads like a WW2 era trip into a madcap middle America Wonderland. The townfolk would be right at home with the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and the rest of Carroll's iconic characters.
Take for example the pre-adolescent wild child Anastasia Jones. Foul mouthed, insolent, and a little violent, "Stacy" brags about what she knows and how she won't tell a soul. When ignored she offers provocative secrets that she can't keep to herself like how she just killed a kitten that day just to see how it felt. She's a little monster who would put to shame the murderous acts of Rhoda Penmark. But such characters should never be underestimated nor wholly ignored. Anastasia will also be instrumental as an eyewitness to an incident that will prove to be the murderer's undoing.
Then there is the garrulous, overweight Molly Huckle whose manner of talking is a mixture of refreshing frankness and embarrassing revelation. She has no filter and isn't ashamed to speak her mind on everyone and anything that pops into her head. At first she seems like a grotesque caricature of small mindedness. As the story progresses Molly will grow in stature as a figure of resolute vindication for all the wrongs perpetrated over the past months in Stubblestone. She has a marvelous scene at the climax of the book where her outspoken manner allows her a grandiose moment as Nemesis for the murderer's victims.
Rounding out the cast are the central figures of the novel in the Pearson household where Kennedy has been holed up. Jane Pearson, a widow raising her only daughter, is a typical hardworking stubborn opportunist making the most of the imposition of becoming a hostess of a temporary boarding house. Her daughter Rose longs to go on a date even if the only person currently interested in her is Luther, a dull and unattractive country bumpkin. So desperate is her longing that she will take any attention paid her. Rose has been trapped in her home and the town, driven into a state of fretful anxiety and comes across as a timid rabbit for most of the book. Her mother rules the house with an iron will and has passed on her forlorn hope of ever leaving Stubblestone. Rose hopes that maybe Kennedy will be the catalyst for change not only in the town but in her home allowing her escape, possible her long overdue romance. And poor Henry Budd, a half-wit handyman who really does nothing at all other than live with the Pearson's is an enigma to Kennedy. He is tolerated by Mrs. Pearson, treated like a teenage boy though he is approaching his fifth decade. Henry's strange chattering seemingly meaningless talk provides Kennedy with a few clues about what might have happened to Eliza Bates. And Henry will prove to have a few secrets of his own among the women in town.
ATMOSPHERE: Though the tentative investigation of a suspicious death provides a neat framework for a well done mystery plot the novel is mostly concerned with the dissection of rural life and the consequences of poverty. As each character is introduced and the town is revealed in numbing routine of ordinary folk living unexciting lives Stubblestone is seen as a representation of all that is wrong with rural America. The maliciousness of the Jones family, in particular, with the nearly insane Anastasia as its prime example can be seen as a direct result of a family so used to having nothing and never being offered opportunities for change that they have grown indifferent to each other. The Jones children are constantly crying, the mother does nothing but slap them and strike them out of exhaustion and uselessness. Her cries of "Shut up" are like prayers for peace. It never comes of course, the noise and anger and frustration only grow to a fever pitch. Anastasia has seen too much, resigned herself to pessimism at only 9 years old. Yet even in her nasty insinuations, her parody of a flirtatious minx, she lapses into little girl behaviors like singing nonsense songs and skipping around the yard.
Poverty, Hays tells us, reduces us to outrage or madness or worse. Whether we can cope or not will decide who we become. But how can one cope and how to react when everyone seems to be so trapped and isolated? Human interaction is essential, but in Stubblestone everyone seems to have turned on each other.
|H . R. Hays as photographed|
in the New York Public Library
(1944, Life magazine)
In the character of Dr. Nelson Hays finds a way to make several points about the insidious nature of poverty and how indifference festers there. He observes that no one really cares for anyone, that there is no sense of community because everything defeats them and "in turn they defeat each other." He is the most compassionate of the characters as well. Pointing out to Kennedy how Molly is "something riotous in the muck" and truly a good woman despite her "barging around in other people's lives." Also he sides with Henry Budd offering a bit of wisdom so seldom acknowledged by the sane experts of the world: "He's happy. ...Why do we always associate insanity with the threat of violence?"
There is a recurring image throughout the book - one of both sight and sound. There is an express bus that passes through town on the only highway that cuts through Stubblestone. The bus zooms along the road, never stopping, moving on and away to Alexandria and beyond. It's a reminder of how only other people are allowed this kind of travel, an image of escape to other places that ignore Stubblestone, places that don't care that towns like Stubblestone even exist.
INNOVATIONS: Hays (perhaps without really knowing he was doing so) has created one of the finest examples of country noir I have read in the past ten years. This was a remarkable find. Stranger on the Highway was not marketed as a detective or suspense novel when it was released back in the 1940s, but it succeeds as both an entertaining, suspenseful tale of dirty doings in the backwater towns of rural America and as an indictment of the detrimental effects of poverty. The characters reminded me of the people you find in the mystery novels of A. B. Cunningham and Dorothy Salisbury Davis, the eerie landscapes recall the Gothic mood of Herman Petersen's settings in his handful of mystery novels. The sense of doom that befalls everyone in the final pages is as inevitable as what occurs in the climaxes of James Cain's novels and the work of all his acolytes.
QUOTES: "Solitary drinking's not good. But who would I drink with? I see too much. And somehow I never make up my mind. The editors don't like what I write. I suppose the design, the form is lacking. There's no love story. No plot. People must have a plot with a happy ending."