Friday’s Forgotten Book: Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes

The crime fiction output of Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) was only 14 novels but their influence was profound. Her work continues to be read, reprinted, and analyzed nearly 60 years after the publication of the last book in 1963, when she turned to full-time literary criticism. These two articles describe her work and its impact in some detail: The Deeply Unsettling Noir of Dorothy B. Hughes by Dwyer Murphy, https://crimereads.com/the-unsettling-existential-noir-of-dorothy-b-hughes/, and On the World’s Finest Female Nor Writer, Dorothy B. Hughes by Sarah Weinman, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/on-the-worlds-finest-female-noir-writer-dorothy-b-hughes/.

Hughes won the Outstanding Mystery Criticism Edgar Award in 1951 for her reviews published in the Albuquerque Tribune and the Los Angeles Daily News. Her last crime novel The Expendable Man was shortlisted for Best Novel in 1964, and her biography/literary analysis of Erle Stanley Gardner was shortlisted for Best Critical/Biographical Work in 1979. Hughes was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1978. 

Dread Journey (Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1945) was the eighth crime story by Hughes. In some ways it is firmly set in its place and time, and in others it might have been based on a story ripped from last year’s headlines. Its setting is nothing new, a passenger train on the three-day trip from Los Angeles to Chicago. Other mystery writers have used trains to good effect, the much-filmed Murder on the Orient Express springs immediately to mind. There’s The Mystery of the Blue Train from Christie, another Poirot story. Christie also set the beginning of one of my favorite mysteries from her on a train, 4:50 from Paddington, alternatively titled What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! More currently, Janet Dawson is writing a wonderful historical mystery series set on the California Zephyr, a passenger train that ran from Oakland, California, to Chicago from 1949 to 1970. A leisurely trip with nothing to do but snack and look at the scenery has always sounded like a great adventure to me. But in Hughes’ hands, the train trip becomes the height of trepidation.

Katherine Agnew, the film actress of the moment, is traveling cross-country via train to her movie premiere in New York. Traveling with her is her director Vivien Spender, one of the top names in Hollywood. Agnew is Spender’s latest discovery. A few years ago he scooped her out of oblivion and made her into a household name. But now, as is Spender’s habit, he has found another beautiful face that intrigues him and Agnew is to be discarded. Only she doesn’t intend to go. Shrewder than the women who preceded her, Agnew gathered enough evidence early in their relationship to ensure that Spender would go to jail if she revealed it. It is safe with her lawyer, who has a personal grudge against Spender and would be only too happy to use the information.

Spender’s enormous ego will not allow anyone to cross him. Agnew has no intention of giving up her career. The battle of nerves between the two creates nail-biting tension that infects the entire passenger car.

Only 192 pages, this book packs a visceral punch in its ability to convey anxiety and fear. It easily holds its own with contemporary novels of psychological suspense. Publishers Weekly gave the 2019 reprint of this book a starred review.

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