Friday, May 25, 2018

FFB: Stranger on the Highway - H. R. Hays

THE STORY: Insurance investigator Kennedy needs to follow up on an anonymous letter hinting at foul play in the death of recently departed Eliza Bates. Unexpectedly his car breaks down and he is stranded in the podunk Indiana town of Stubblestone while he awaits the part to be delivered from Alexandria, fifty miles away. Resigned to an unplanned overnight stay he manages to coax a room out of local Jane Pearson and while he reluctantly settles in over the next day and a half he listens to stories and anecdotes about Eliza. It becomes clear that she was not well liked and that someone may have murdered her. He orders an exhumation and autopsy. The surprising findings in turn unearth a nest of secrets and reveal a calculated killer with a very strange motive.

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."

Behind him lay Stubblestone, its poverty, its grimness, its raw hates and desires, clinging to its narrow plot of earth like some tenacious insect, nourished on dirt and misery.

He could still see the post office with its weathered sign...all the gray weathering of unpainted boards and the grayness of lives equally eroded, equally stripped of the colors and graces, the privacies and comforts that soften men's communal living.

"Indignation..." the doctor said. "We ought to shout, smash things. We have the power. Why should a man willingly spend his life in an outhouse?"

THE AUTHOR: Hoffman Reynolds Hays (1904-1980) was a poet, playwright, lyricist, translator, social anthropologist, historian of zoology and natural sciences, and an educator. He was educated at Cornell and Columbia University and spent most of his early writing life as a playwright with the politically minded Living Newspaper, an offshoot of the Federal Theater, during the 1930s and early 1940s. His most famous work was Medicine Show (1940), an unusual theater piece more pageant than play, that celebrated the benefits of socialized medicine. After a fairly successful run with Living Newspaper Medicine Show was mounted on Broadway where it ran for only 35 performances. In 1937 Hays collaborated with Kurt Weill on a musical adaptation of his play The Ballad of Davy Crockett, but it was never produced. The songs with music by Weill and lyrics by Hays are almost entirely lost. Some were recorded in 2000 on a small classical German label.

His most noteworthy literary achievements are translations of Bertolt Brecht's plays including Mother Courage and Her Children (notable also for its indictment of the opportunism of business and the ravages of poverty in wartime) and for his pioneer poetry anthology 12 Spanish American Poets (1943), largely responsible for introducing future Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda and others to an English speaking audience.

Primarily a poet and playwright with over twenty television scripts to his name Hays wrote only a handful novels, two of which are crime novels. Lie Down in Darkness, his other tale of murderous intent, will be reviewed here later this year.

EASY TO FIND? There are no modern reprints of Stranger on a Highway that I know of, but some enterprising publisher ought to jump on this one. Those interested in finding a copy need to scour the used book markets both in the real world and the digital one. There are several copies available, but not many. The book was published in the US by Little, Brown & Co. and also in the UK by Robert Hale in 1947. No paperback reprints exist that I could verify.

I found the book to be riveting and truly one of the better examples of country noir with a refreshing modern feel in its poetic prose, sprinkling of raw language and resonant observations. Frankly, this is better than Cain or anything from the 1950s.

13 comments:

  1. I love your thorough, entertaining reviews, John. I feel as if I know these characters just from reading this!

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  2. As usual, you find a book no one else has ever heard of (well, I haven't, anyway) and make it sound like a 'must read.' Of course it's one of the 'hard to find' illusive tomes you love to tease us with, but what the heck. I love that cover!

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  3. This seems very compelling, John. the run-down town seems like a character of its own. Searched for this @ Open Library. No luck. Another one of those that I'll never get a chance to read:(

    But at least one can read your fine reviews.

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  4. Forgot to add, you have put this beautifully, John:

    "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."

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    1. Neer, thanks for the compliment. When a book is this artistic it somehow manages to rub off on me. I like that!

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  5. Would love to get my hands on this one, John! Thanks for giving me a new treasure to hunt up!

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    1. Wish it was easier to find, Peggy. Only seven copies and all between $25 and $40. I got the only cheap one a few months ago. Sorry...

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  6. Thanks for all the comments everyone. For some reason I'm not getting emails from Blogger. Didn't know I had any comments on this until today (June 1) when I went into my account and checked the "Awaiting moderation" file. Have to find out what's wrong with my account and fix it.

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    1. Same thing happened to me, John. The social sites seem to be in chaos these days. I keep getting notices of "new" privacy polices, etc. Until I read your message here and checked my "awaiting moderation" list I'd begun thinking it might be time to change my deodorant.

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    2. I just decided it would be best to go back to unmoderated comments and just delete the spam when it shows up.

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    3. That's exactly what I did, Matt. Actually it's easier to delete unwanted comments than to publish the ones I do want because there are so few of the junk ones these days. This problem is definitely related to the GDPR law in the EU that went into effect on May 25. Blogger is just dragging their feet to fix it.

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    4. Yes, I have the same thing - I don't pre-moderate but I did used to get emails to tell me comments had arrived, and that has just stopped dead. I will tend to see them when it is the most recent posts, but people quite often comment on older posts (I'm sure it's the same for all of us: someone reads an old book and googles to find any blog mentions) and I would hate to miss them.

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  7. Easy fix to get emails: in your first reply comment make sure to click on the “Notify me” box in the lower right corner of the comment window. You’ll get every comment emailed to you but only for that post. I still have to police comments earlier than May 2018 using the Published list in my Blogger settings.

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