Noir Classics: The Candy Kid – Dorothy B. Hughes
by K. A. Laity
While Hughes’ reputation is assured by the brilliance of In a Lonely Place, Ride the Pink Horse or The Expendable Man, her other novels offer great reads that show her experimenting with characterisations and locations as well as story-telling methods. Her love of the southwest takes centre stage in The Candy Kid, which turns out to be nothing like the gloriously lurid Pocket Book cover by Edward Vebell.
The story begins in the border town El Paso. Even today that town and its twin across the valley, Ciudad Juárez, embody the fraught relationship between the US and Mexico. Hughes’ impression of the tension between the people living and working there and the crime networks that exploit the border crossings seems sedate compared to the cartel violence that led to the image of Juárez as Murder Central in the early part of this century, when hundreds of women were kidnapped and murdered.
When Jose Aragon, disheveled from driving cattle to El Paso from his New Mexican ranch, first spots Dulcinda Farrar, we suspect here’s the femme fatale. ‘She didn’t look like Texas, not even Dallas. She looked like a turista from the East…she was upper-level stuff’ (2). In Hughes’ books, judging anyone by their appearance is likely to be a mistake. Farrar mistakes Aragon for a cadging Mexican and asks him to pick up a package for her across the border. He agrees despite being equal parts amused and annoyed. Aragon is proud of being Spanish but it rankles a little to be taken for Mexican though he’s aware at that moment he looks the part, hanging around a swank hotel, waiting for his cousin so they can go check in.
It’s meant to be a joke he can spring on the woman as he gets to know her later. He plans to show up after he’s showered and dressed, ready to see her surprise at the handsome man-about-town. But Aragon discovers he’s picked up a shadow. He can’t tell who the guy in the non-descript seersucker suit is (cop? criminal?) but when the guy ends up dead he realises there’s a lot more going on that a joke that’s gone too far.
The mystery straddles the border and then moves to Santa Fe—and Los Alamos. There’s more murder and more questions as a bottle of perfume isn’t at all what it seems. Aragon gets a lot more than he bargained for entangling himself with Farrar and her brother, and a Mexican kid who’s trying to escape the crime kingpin her family sold her to in desperation.
In some ways the 1950 novel looks back to the war-time thrillers Hughes wrote, perhaps as a way of adapting to the growing Red Scare, but I don’t think it really suited her. Also Aragon seems too much built from the outside; we have the facts of him, but he doesn’t feel real in the way that her other creations Dix Steele and Hugh Densmore do. Ride the Pink Horse (1964) works much better with outsider Sailor looking at the cultural collisions of the southwest town. But it’s a fun read with plenty of twists. You can’t go wrong with Hughes.