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DOROTHY B. HUGHES. The So Blue Marble (1940).

10 Aug

SoBlueMarble1The Montefierrow twins, the villains who drive this very offbeat début novel, appear to hail from the darker reaches of our collective unconscious. With their matching tophat-and-tails apparel, their walking sticks that contain concealed weapons, and their monogrammed (and narcotically infused) cigarettes—above all, with their preternatural air of self-possession—they embody a dream logic. Floating through an otherwise realistic Manhattan cityscape, they come across less as characters in the usual sense than as fragments of a nightmare. From the novel’s first scene, they cast a haunting pall over the heroine, Griselda Satterlee, and in doing so they push the tale halfway into the horror genre. In its overall structure, however, The So Blue Marble unfolds as an early example of the mid-century noir thriller. It’s a cat-and-mouse tale in which Griselda, a former movie actress who now works as a fashion designer, plays a reasonably sympathetic “mouse” to the twins’ demonic “cat.”

Aside from their bizarre accoutrements, the Montefierrows’ most distinguishing features are their astounding looks and charm, their apparently limitless wealth (which bestows an aura of impunity on them), and their homicidal zeal to possess a certain blue marble, which they believe Griselda either has or knows how to find. That eponymous bauble—a thing not only of great beauty and great value, but also of supposedly occult power—serves as the novel’s MacGuffin. It has a blood-soaked back-story that recalls the one that Dashiell Hammett gave to the Maltese falcon in his novel of that name, but Hughes handles this motif less deftly than Hammett did. Other parties are chasing after the marble, and among them is a government entity called X, staffed by so-called X-men and led by a quasi-mythic figure named Barjon Garth. It’s an outlandish plot element, worthy of a comic book. Equally outlandish is a string of murders that seem to attach as much to Griselda as they do to the marble; she isn’t responsible for them, but they are part of the phantasmagoria that surrounds her.

Even as the tale draws on the surreal logic of dreams, it also follows a movie logic: Hughes peoples it with vain Hollywood stars, wisecracking reporters, high-strung High Society women (including Griselda’s sisters, Ann and Missy), and dashing bachelors (including Con Satterlee, Griselda’s former husband, and “Gig” Gigland, a Columbia University professor). SoBlueMarble2In various combinations, these characters race across city streets—and back and forth to a small upstate town—in vivid, cinematically paced scenes. An actual movie adaptation, in fact, might have improved the story by wresting Hughes’ plot into a tighter, more conventional shape.

A couple of minor surprises enliven the final stretch of the novel, but ultimately it is not a work of mystery, and even its capacity for eliciting suspense—that sense of needing to know, and yet fearing, what will happen next—is fairly weak. The fantasy-like strain that runs through the piece makes it hard to believe, or care much about, Griselda’s predicament. Will the heroine elude the twins’ vendetta against anyone who might thwart their quest for the marble? Will she find not just safety but also love amid the human wreckage that ensues from their evil project? Hughes, although she displays a high level of literary craft for a first-time novelist, provides answers to those questions that are neither surprising nor compelling.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 10, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel

 

3 responses to “DOROTHY B. HUGHES. The So Blue Marble (1940).

  1. JJ

    August 10, 2020 at 11:06 AM

    Thanks, Mike — I’ve seen Hughes getting reprints through the American Mystery Classics range and wasn’t sure whether to give her a try, but you’ve made me realise that this doesn’t sound like my sort of thing. I increasingly get the impression that the American GAD school is always going to do less for me than its UK counterpart, and I’ll have to be a bit more selective in order to find the bits of it that suit my tastes…so reviews like this — even-handed, honest about flaws and strengths alike — are incredibly helpful.

     
    • Mike

      August 10, 2020 at 7:12 PM

      Hello, JJ. Glad to be of service. The challenge, of course, is that there wasn’t just one school among American mystery writers during what we call the Golden Age. This book, as I see it, combines elements of the emerging “noir” school of the 1940s and the uniquely American “madcap” school (in which a plot consists of spinning out one crazy thing after another). It’s not a mixture that works very well, in my view (but there are plenty of readers who disagree with me), and in any case it’s a far cry from being a proper detective story.

       
      • JJ

        August 11, 2020 at 12:49 AM

        I think that’s precisely it — the classics-era American writers would blend schools to a degree that can be very successful (Home Sweet Homicide by Craig Rice, say) or can end up falling between too many stools to really emerge as anything. Someone like Kelley Roos made a great fist (at least early in their career) of the Noir-Madcap-Suspense mash-up, but it’s a difficult balance to maintain cross a whole book, never mind a whole career spent spinning that many plates every time you try to write a plot.

        The British writers getting increased exposure through reprints over here — John Bude, George Bellairs, Christopher Bush, etc — might have fewer notes in their scale, but at least you can be assured of a consistency in what they’re giving you. It’s not to say that either approach is better, and the unvarying output of some of those British writers might be what led them to fall from awareness, but it does highlight a key difference in how the two countries approached the same broad genre trappings.

         

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