Ride the Pink Horse
Dorothy B. Hughes
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road June 18, 2013
Originally published, 1946
A drunken, overweight, apparently homeless man who sleeps on the ground under a dirty serape and rarely washes is the moral authority in Sailor’s life. Referred to only by his nickname, Sailor arrives in Santa Fe, New Mexico on a bus from Chicago. He’s tailing his boss, corrupt former Illinois Senator Willis Douglas who has gone west with a beautiful young woman and a retinue to escape turmoil generated by his wife’s murder.
Sailor’s packing a gun along with a load of prejudice and delusion.
Hot and dirty Santa Fe is filled with hayseeds and yokels. A hick town. Sailor is repelled by the populace. Mexicans and Indians mostly, who he refers to in vile, insulting terms. Not out loud of course, “this wasn’t the time or place.”
He’s come to town to have a showdown with his boss who he refers to simply as the Sen. The Sen owes him money. The murder of Mrs. Douglas was bungled. She died, but not according to plan. Other members of Sailor’s Chicago gang have high-tailed it out of town, Ziggy down to Mexico where Sailor plans to meet up with him. With cash from the senator, Sailor and Ziggy can start some business, some scam in Mexico and live high.
In Ride the Pink Horse, a 1946 crime novel by noir writer Dorothy B. Hughes, the New Mexico environs play a strong role. The multi-ethnic culture and the small dusty western town that vexes Sailor contributes to Hughes’ heavy themes.
Before Sailor can track down the senator, he has to find a place to stay for the night in this “God-forsaken town.” He discovers that Santa Fe—never identified by name in the book—is crowded with people in town to celebrate the Fiesta weekend. No hotel rooms are available anywhere. Sailor becomes frustrated, angry and disdainful but at the same time disoriented and fearful. His suitcase becomes a heavy burden. He’s haunted by the eyes of the Indians he passes in the street.
“They looked at him as if he were some kind of a specimen they hadn’t seen before. There was no expression on their brown faces. It gave him a queer feeling, as if he, not the Indians, were something strange.”
Meandering around town late at night with nowhere to go, he wanders into a small carnival and strikes up a conversation with a man who operates a tio vito, a merry-go-round.
“He saw…a big brigand, a Pancho Villa, fat and shapeless and dirty, but his brown face was curiously peaceful…. His overalls were worn and faded, held up by a dirty knotted string; his blue shirt smelled of sweat and his yellowed teeth of garlic, his hat was battered beyond shape. But his face was peaceful, even happy.”
Sailor is not happy. With no rooms available in town he winds up bedding down on the ground next to the tio vito with Pancho who is eager to share what little he has with the stranger. Next morning Sailor wants to meet the senator who is staying at La Fonda (a real hotel in Santa Fe) but after a night on the ground, he delays. He looks like a tramp. He needs to find somewhere to wash and change clothes.
We follow Sailor around town as he suffers inconveniences and indignities, his disillusionment with the senator clear. In spite of his rough language and prejudices, which decline as he gets to know Pancho and other locals, he is educated. He spent more than a year in college having dodged the draft during World War II with help from the senator. He finds a shower and a shave, but before he sees the senator, he spots a familiar face from Chicago, a homicide detective identified in the book only as McIntyre. The Chicago cop has known Sailor since Sailor was a troubled kid growing up in a slum.
Sailor realizes that McIntyre has been in town a while and thus the detective did not follow him from Chicago but was in New Mexico trailing the Sen. Sailor confronts the senator and surprises him not only with his presence and demand for money, but with the news that McIntyre is in town. The senator tells Sailor he’ll have trouble raising the money and puts him off a day ultimately consigning Sailor to another night on the ground with Pancho.
Initially Pancho only knows Sailor is in Santa Fe on business and that he has a gun secreted in his jacket pocket. He nonetheless helps him out of scrapes, interprets the local Indian and Mexican American way of life and gets drunk with him. Pancho tells Sailor that his name is Don Jose Patricio Santiago Morales y Cortez yet he accepts Sailor’s nickname and its racist implications.
Prompted by conversations with Pancho and McIntyre, Sailor relives portions of his life and his mistakes, at times becoming philosophical with his new Mexican-American friend.
“I am at peace with everyone.” [Pancho said.]
“Even with the guys that kick you around?”
“Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,” Pancho said cheerfully. “When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.”
Ride the Pink Horse, named after one of the steeds on Pancho’s hand-crank carousel, is a compelling three-day slice of life, a morality play, a mystery and a hard boiled novel about relationships and betrayal. It’s filled with symbolism and enough noir atmosphere to make you depressed for a week, yet the characters and dialog are almost as reminiscent of Steinbeck as they are of Hammett or Cain. (Hughes listed Graham Greene and Eric Ambler among the writers who influenced her work.) Although she is not nearly as well known as other (male) authors of the period, Hughes earns a top spot in the noir hierarchy.
Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993) lived much of her life in Santa Fe. She majored in journalism at the University of Missouri began her career as a reporter working for papers in Missouri, New York and New Mexico. As an author she first published award-winning poetry then a string of noir novels starting in 1940. Her books Ride the Pink Horse, The Fallen Sparrow and In a Lonely Place were turned into movies, the later starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham.
Robert Montgomery directed and starred in the 1947 film version of the book. It loosely follows Sailor’s story of his trip to Santa Fe and has decent cinematography. Pancho, a pivotal character in the book, however, is reduced to almost a bit player negating some of Hughes’ poignant scenes. Thomas Gomez is nonetheless a convincing Pancho while Wanda Hendrix, an anglo actress—who looks no more like an Indian girl that I do–plays Pila, a young native American who becomes a love interest for Montgomery. Fred Clark, who often played slow-burn comic roles, is believable as a mobster, the movie substitution for the Sen.