Dorothy B. Hughes

Born - Aug 10, 1904   |   Died - May 6, 1993   |   Genres - Drama, Spy Film, Crime

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Dorothy B. Hughes was one of the most prominent woman authors of mystery and detective fiction from the '40s through the '50s, and three of her novels were turned into major motion pictures. She was born Dorothy Belle Flanagan in Kansas City, MO, in 1904. In later interviews, she recalled that from the moment that she began learning to write words at age six, she knew she would be a professional writer. She attended the University of Missouri as a journalism major and earned her bachelor's degree there; she later attended the University of New Mexico and Columbia University in New York City. She also worked as a journalist in Missouri, New Mexico, and New York. In 1931, she published an award-winning book of poetry, Dark Certainty. She wrote a history of the University of New Mexico in the late '30s, and then turned to authoring fiction. In 1940, her first two novels, The Cross-Eyed Bear and The So Blue Marble, appeared. The plot of the latter told of a fashion designer pursued by government agents and mercenaries who were after a blue marble containing an ancient formula which could master the forces of sunlight and gravitation. She stuck to less fanciful ideas for her subsequent books, beginning with The Bamboo Blonde, but it was her 1942 novel, The Fallen Sparrow, that marked Hughes' breakthrough and her introduction to Hollywood. The story rights were bought by RKO, who turned the story into The Fallen Sparrow (1943), starring John Garfield as the survivor of a Spanish prisoner-of-war camp, faced with new Nazi enemies in the United States. This movie was a box-office success and one of the more serious topical thrillers about World War II, and it helped transform the book into Hughes' best-known work. Her 1946 novel, Ride the Pink Horse -- a thriller about the hunt for a killer in a small New Mexican village -- was turned into a brilliant film by director and star Robert Montgomery the following year. Her 1947 novel In a Lonely Place later became a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart under director Nicholas Ray; the film version was released in 1950 under the same title.

Hughes' work slackened as she started a family and found motherhood imposing upon her ability to write, but she always wrote literary criticism -- for 39 years she was a literary critic specializing in mysteries for the Albuquerque Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Herald Tribune, among other papers. In 1950, she received her first Edgar Allen Poe Award for her work as a critic. Hughes' fiction became well-respected among readers for its vivid language, which was linked to an unusually tough yet rich brand of storytelling and challenging characterizations -- not all of which made it to the screen. Her books usually featured lone upper-class heroes operating on their own, outside of officialdom and in pursuit of justice; the best of her books offered unusual twists on this pattern. Hughes was writing far ahead of what Hollywood was prepared to deal with even in the '60s. In 1964, Ride the Pink Horse was adapted into a new movie, The Hanged Man, and that marked the end of Hughes' direct influence on Hollywood. Her work, however, was a major influence on other mystery writers of the postwar era, and the movies they inspired remain among the most respected of their particular libraries. She was especially influential on the next two generations of female mystery writers. In 1978, Hughes was dubbed a "grand master" by the Mystery Writers of America. She returned to non-fiction writing late in life and received her second Edgar Award for her book Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason. Hughes died in 1993 at the age of 88. Her most popular books regularly went into reprint throughout the later decades of her life.