The Bamboo Blonde by Dorothy B. Hughes. Duell, Sloan and Pearce (1941), 314 pp.
Con and Griselda Satterlee have just remarried. Much to Griselda’s consternation they’re spending their second honeymoon in a beat-up cottage in Long Beach. On the way to the Bamboo Bar for a drink, she becomes more annoyed when Con, a news broadcaster and former spy, stops to chat with the beautiful Kathie Travis, wife of a naval officer. When they arrive, Griselda spots an old friend, journalist Kew Brent, in conversation with an evil-looking guy who turns out to be Major Albert George Pembroke, a free lance espionage agent. Con heads for the bar, where he picks up an attractive blonde, Shelley Huffaker, and walks out with her. Griselda’s anger turns to fear when Pembroke follows her home and tells her about a broadcasting scheme that may endanger her husband. The next day she learns that Huffaker has been murdered. Could Con be the killer?
In an edgier book Con might be a serious suspect. Here he’s just a presumptuous jerk who refuses to tell his wife what’s going on. He’s irritating, but he’s not one of the book’s main flaws. These concern plot and narration. Hughes’ underlying story is so complicated that it defeats her attempts to decipher it. She never explains, for example, what Pembroke is trying to do and why his many opponents have so much trouble stopping him. On top of this Hughes pours several failed romances that are unrelated to espionage but nevertheless lead to murders. The author tells the story in the third person from the viewpoint of Griselda, the novel’s main character. She’s in every scene; only her thoughts are revealed. But nothing much happens in her presence. She learns about important events only when someone tells her. Readers thus must try to reconstruct the action from a long series of conversations, a process that generates boredom rather than excitement. Hughes has more success with this narrative technique in In a Lonely Place (1947). Anyone interested in her work should probably start there.