I enjoyed Gone Girl well enough but those hailing Gone Girl and the female-written female-driven thriller novel that has become en vogue should do a little cultural excavation. Women have historically dominated the thriller market, especially in the 30s through the 50s. And one of the greats, indeed perhaps the greatest of these was Dorothy Hughes.
I haven’t read a lot of Hughes and that’s my mistake. Her most popular work is In A Lonely Place, which inspired the Humphrey Bogart movie that’s drastically different from the book. But she’s written a lot of other great thriller-type novels. The Expendable Man is an early contender for the best book I’ve read in 2019. This may not make my list but it’s also darn good in it’s own right.
You know all you need to from the premise: a popular film actress is riding a bicoastal train from LA to NYC for a film premiere, convinced that her producer/ex-lover is going to kill her. The producer himself, a Harvey Weinstein-type if there ever was one, is on the train as well, along with other assorted characters.
What makes Hughes the master of this kind of work is not the thrill-a-minute page-turning style that is popular this day in age, nor is Dread Journey a slow burn. It’s a character study. You find out who these characters are little-by-little and slowly, their motivations are revealed. Small decisions end up having big consequences. Throw in a claustrophobic setting (the entire book takes place on the train) and you’ve got quite a pot boiler.
Some female writers from this era, Margaret Millar in particular, have gotten republished and received new love and adoration in these times. It’s gotta be Hughes’ turn to have a moment.