Three men from Chicago find themselves in an unnamed New Mexico town for the annual Fiesta, and it’s not by coincidence. Sailor is our flawed protagonist. The product of a rough upbringing, he escaped poverty through the help of Senator Willis Douglas, a corrupt politician. After a falling out, Sailor has tracked the Senator to this out of the way place in hopes of getting paid off for services rendered. The third man is Chief McIntyre of the Chicago police, still looking into the death of the Senator’s late wife even though the case is officially closed.
Sailor is caught off guard by the Fiesta and the lack of available hotel rooms. A casual racist, he is disturbed by the crowds of Hispanic and Native American people. Nevertheless he strikes up an unlikely friendship with the operator of the fair’s carousel, a mixed-race man Sailor insists on calling Pancho after a supposed resemblance to Pancho Villa.
As Sailor tries to get the Senator to take him seriously and pay him what he feels he is owed, McIntyre pressures Sailor relentlessly, trying to get information about the Senator’s illegal activities and his behavior on the night of his wife’s death. As Sailor’s funds are diminished and the stress of the heat and the crowds wears on his nerves he finds himself getting increasingly desperate and unsure where to turn.
It’s an appealing set-up for a noir story, but sadly Hughes doesn’t do all that much with it. Sailor is unappealing even as an anti-hero, and he’s a hard man to spend a whole book with. The other two main characters are stock types given little time to make an impression. The plot is straightforward and simple and as a result the book drags along needlessly. Though the ending is reminiscent of classic noir ambivalence, it lacks punch due to the tedium that precedes it.