A year after reprinting Hughes’ first novel, The So Blue Marble (1940), Otto Penzler follows it with her eighth, a 1945 tale of murder feared and then executed aboard a long-distance train.
Vivien Spender is a powerful enough producer/director to do whatever he wants, and what he’s wanted for years is to find the perfect actress to play the enigmatic Clavdia Chauchat in his film adaptation of The Magic Mountain. Viv’s fancies have alighted on one candidate after another even as his devotion to Thomas Mann’s novel has remained constant. Kitten Agnew, a bona fide movie star, has convinced herself that she’s vanquished the opposition and landed the part, but Viv’s spotted a new Clavdia: Newfoundland librarian Gratia Shawn, whom he discovered while she was visiting Hollywood: “She couldn’t act but he’d teach her that.” He’s offered Kitten $1 million to buy out her contract, but she refuses to sell because she thinks the damning evidence she’s collected that Viv murdered his first wife puts her in the driver’s seat. Now, as Kitten and Gratia share a compartment aboard the Super Chief speeding from Los Angeles to New York and carrying Viv and Mike Dana, the female assistant who’s long been sweet on him, Kitten is terrified that once Viv realizes how legally indefensible his position is, he’ll have no choice but to kill her as well. As the shadows lengthen and the sense of claustrophobia thickens, Hughes examines this combustible mixture from the viewpoints of violinist-turned-bandleader Les Augustin, failed screenwriter Sidney Pringle, alcoholic reporter Hank Cavanaugh, Pullman porter James Cobbett, and the principals, each of whom scrutinizes the others as both predators and potential prey. Murder will indeed strike, but it will do little to alter the pervasive sense of dread and doom.
The perfect in-flight read. The only thing that’s dated is the long-distance train.