Thursday, September 03, 2015
Forgotten Books: The So Blue Marble Dorothy B.Hughes
I'm not sure exactly when Freud became an influence on popular culture but certainly in the Thirties and Forties his beliefs could be found in crime fiction and crime movies everywhere. Hitchcock sanctified him in Spellbound and many lesser directors followed suit.
One of the most prominent of Freudian tropes was phantasmagoria, the sense that the protagonist is lost in a chaos that may or may not be real. A nightmare or is he really about to die?
Dorothy B. Hughes certainly plays with this trope in her famous novel The So-Blue Marble (1940). Her lovely protagonist, saddled with the unlovely name Griselda, decides to visit New York and stay in her ex-husband's apartment, at his request. They haven't seen each other for four years during which he's become a major reporter for NBC worldwide and she's become both a writer and an unlikely (and unhappy) movie actress.
This is the Vogue magazine world just before the war. Everything is ridiculously expensive, everything ridiculously elegant, people, clothes, cars, apartments alike. There are always limos standing by and the proper servants to drive them.
Griselda is accosted in chapter one by a pair of diabolocially handsome twin brothers, one blond one dark haired, called the Montefierrow Twins by everybody who knows them. They are most frequently seen in tops hats, tails and carrying gold-handled canes, one of which has a dagger on its tip. In any kind of company other than their international che-che world these two would be dead in under five minutes.
The lads want a blue marble that they believe Griselda has. This is the McGuffin. A lot of people want the marble. Only the twins are willing to kill for it, something they do frequently. The marble isn't just a marble of course and there are hints that spies from three different countries have been searching for it, too.
The phantasmagoric aspect comes in when you realize that at times the story teeters on the brink of being unbelievable. It really does have the quality of a nightmare. The writing and social observation are so well done--Hughes, a Yale Young Poet in those days, obviously knew this turf well--you're swept up in all the calamity without worrying about some of the stranger twists and turns.
The most interesting character in the book is Missy, Grisedla's seductive sixteen year old sister. A true psychopath and the lover of one of the those god awful twins. Humbert Humbert would no doubt find her enchanting. Few writers have ever been able to create terror as well as Hughes and Missy is borne of that terror, another unsettling element played off against the real world. To me it's clear that Hughes dutifully read her Elizabeth Sanxay Holding and learned a great deal from the experience.
This is the novel that set Dorothy B. Hughes on a career that would include two of her novels becoming Bogart pictures, the best of which, In A Lonely Place, is a noir icon. This is a swift, tart, dark novel set in the months before Pearl Harbor. The coming war is felt on every page.