Reprint of the Year Nomination 1: Beat Back the Tide

Footsteps in the Night and Beat Back the Tide by Dolores Hitchens

“It’s terrible when you fasten all your life to a mirage…The worst of it all is when you begin to see the truth—not the truth as the other might have revealed it, but finding it scrap by scrap, little by little. All the time you’re clinging to what you thought was there, and the change, the corruption, is eating it away, and finally there is nothing at all and you think it would be better to die.”

California is a place to reinvent yourself, but what happens when that doesn’t work? When you don’t find what you’re looking for and there’s nowhere left to go? That’s why California noir is the most hopeless. For the characters in Dolores Hitchens’ 1954 novel Beat Back the Tide, California is the end of the line. The gulf between its dazzling promises and what it actually delivers is profound. Everyone has a past they are trying to forget, but, like the tide, it just keeps roaring back.

Beat Back the Tide, reissued this year by Stark House, is a haunting meditation on identity and loss. All of its characters, except one, are trying to become someone else, desperate to escape the failures of other lives in other places. The exception is Francesca Warne, who returns to the scene of her greatest failure by coming to work as a nanny in the house where her husband was murdered several years ago. Francesca is the one person who is always herself, who never lies (though she does hold back a great deal). As a result, she appears contradictory and inscrutable to those around her. 

Under her words, under everything she had said since they had come outside, lay something else—something Glazer couldn’t put his finger on but which nonetheless made him faintly uneasy…Mrs. Warne, though she seemed to be saying quite simple things, had other meanings in her head. The thing she wasn’t saying peeped through the tones of her queer, breathless voice and looked from her eyes […] He wondered briefly, standing there near her, watching the black hair glitter in the sun, if the thing that was the matter with her could be fear.

Her boss Glazer (whose first name is never revealed) becomes suspicious of Francesca after several strange events shatter the peace of his house on the cliff. Glazer is introduced as a successful building contractor, a grieving widower who just wants to protect his child. He’s even managed to cultivate a garden in the sparse, sandy soil of the clifftop. However, as he becomes more and more obsessed with the mystery of Francesca’s past, it becomes clear that Glazer’s own past is much darker than his current lifestyle would suggest.

Beat Back the Tide by Dolores HitchensEven the sunny yellow flowers spilling merrily over the cliff take on a more sinister aspect. “It had been after Rheba’s death, and after he had begun to feel some disappointment about Jamie, that he had begun to put so much effort into the garden. And he had conquered here, he thought with a kind of shock, though his wife had escaped him by dying and Jamie evaded his guidance in a way he couldn’t analyze.” He often comes across as almost cruel to his son, Jamie. The boy’s sweet and timid nature hits him like a betrayal. Glazer has decorated Jamie’s room in a heavy, masculine Wild West theme, with pistols and snarling animals hanging on the wall, as if to harden the child to meet the demands of a tough world. Having reinvented himself, Glazer cannot be content with his son as he really is. He must reinvent Jamie as well. Glazer may be the protagonist of Beat Back the Tide, but he’s far from being a hero. The more of his character that is revealed, the more unsettling it is.

Glazer’s quest to solve Adam Warne’s murder is a way of understanding, and thereby controlling, Francesca. His investigation brings him into contact with people who are terrified he will discover the truth behind their carefully crafted new personas. Some of these secret identities seem harmless, like the drugstore clerk turned pampered housewife. Others are more dangerous. Dolores Hitchens conjures up these desperate lives with just a few telling details (“It was not a warm, experienced smile. Probably he did not smile often enough to quite get the hang of it”). Several of the secrets are pathetically small, but this only makes them seem more shameful under Glazer’s withering eye. Even the town of Seaview itself is not what it seems. The community masquerades as a picturesque artists’ colony, but it hasn’t really been that for many years. Instead, Seaview exploits its bohemian past to draw in the tourists and wealthy retirees its economy depends upon. It offers these rootless people the illusion of authenticity, the rough edges they still crave after having smoothed off their own.

The late Adam Warne stirred up these people simply by being his own authentic self, awful as that self was. Since Adam denied himself no impulse, everyone he met knew at once exactly how he saw them. For some, he reflected themselves as they would like to be: talented, beloved. For others, he represented their worst fears. Hitchens is not unkind to her characters, not even the shiftless, alcoholic Adam, who is remembered fondly by a few friends.

If you’ve been talking to people here in town, you’ve got an impression he was lower than dirt […] But you can’t add up a man that way. You can’t just say he was like this and he was rotten, because none of us are just one thing or even one kind of human being. We’re a lot of creatures rolled into a skin and penned up, imprisoned, for the time we have to live. And Adam Warne was a man who never did find out which creature he was meant to be. He experimented. He tried to discover himself.

Beat Back the Tide ends on a disquieting note, with brief surveys of the human wreckage left behind. The astonishing thing is how resilient these characters are after all they have been through. One after another, they all insist that everything is going to work out now. It will be different this time. They will be different this time. And maybe they will. Maybe, for a few, their dreams of California really will come true.

I can attest that Beat Back the Tide is a worthy candidate for Reprint of the Year because I have been thinking about it throughout the entire year. I first read this book back in March, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Its painfully honest but optimistic tone makes this a book for 2020. One is left with the sense of having passed through an ordeal and come out the other side a little battered, but also a little stronger and maybe just a little wiser. Beat Back the Tide takes place in a ruined yet hopeful world where facing the truth, however harsh it may be, is the first step to living “a happy and useful life.” Maybe not the life you’ve always dreamed of, but the life that really belongs to you. “What did you want out of life?” Glazer asks himself, before providing his own answer. “It doesn’t matter. This is what you’ve got.”

Nominations for Reprint of the Year are posted at Crossexamining Crime


The Abductor (1962) by Dolores Hitchens

The Abductor by Dolores Hitchens

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“She tried not to feel afraid for herself. He had made no real threat at all. But there was murder in the air.”

Miss Moynton can hardly believe her eyes. A man is standing in the bushes at the edge of the schoolyard. “Marion,” he calls out softly. “Marion.” Even after he runs away, her worry remains—one of her second-grade students is named Marion.

The principal doesn’t seem concerned, however, and neither does little Marion’s mother. Miss Moynton is a new young teacher. Maybe she’s imagining things. Maybe she’s overreacting. After all, it’s not as if anything really happened. At least, not yet.

The Abductor by Dolores HitchensThe Abductor begins with a suspenseful premise as it follows the troubled lives of three potential kidnapping targets. Over the next twenty-four hours, it develops into a more straightforward thriller centered around a harrowing moral dilemma. While interesting from an ethical perspective, I did not find this aspect of the story as compelling on a human level. The personal stories of the victims and bystanders (innocent and guilty) are what provide the real mystery: Why do people make the choices they do? How can we protect each other from danger when the biggest danger lies within ourselves?

The first possible victim is seven-year-old Marion Charles, who is often left alone by her hapless single mother, Betty. Miss Moynton’s report of the man in the bushes barely registers for Betty. Her fiancé sees no room in his life for another man’s child, so she has a big decision to make about Marion. It would be easy to despise Betty if she were not so terrified by her own inability to cope with life.

Even needing glasses the way she did, she could see how her hair was fading and how the shape of her face was almost imperceptibly not young anymore. Thirty-seven was a tough age for a woman. Forty was staring at you right around the corner…Office managers looked at you as if you were dead, if you had to admit to being over thirty-five.

Her existence feels like a dead end. Marriage to Tommy seems to be her only chance of securing a future. Betty ignores the fact that “actually she and Tommy didn’t have a lot to talk about except wasn’t it marvelous to be in love, and where should we eat.” Instead, she concentrates on the dream home he’s promised her, the house with everything except her daughter.

Marion’s classmate, Marilyn Trent, has two loving parents but they, too, are full of fear. As soon as she comes home from school, Carol and Bruce Trent question their daughter. Did anyone follow her home? Did anyone try to speak to her? Marilyn is wise to stranger danger (“we saw a movie in the auditorium”), but a young child can never be completely trusted to follow instructions out in the real world. Her parents don’t dare tell her about the real danger, the one that drove them to uproot their lives and move across the country.

The Abductor by Dolores HitchensThe final player in this deadly game is substitute teacher Marion Kennick, who has a secret life outside of the classroom.  Is Marion’s double life finally catching up with her?

All three possible victims lead precarious lives even without the threat of kidnapping—in the case of the children, their parents have exposed them to threats the little girls are not even aware of. No one takes any real action about it until the man in the bushes makes his appearance, a physical embodiment of the fears that have been swirling around these characters for far too long.

Even more depressingly, several adults perceive the danger of the situation, but their efforts are rather feeble. As the principal points out, though there is reason for concern, nothing actually has happened yet. There are no real crimes here. Trespassing, hang-up phone calls, a car parked outside the school that’s just a little too shabby for the neighborhood—these are nuisances, not serious charges. Police can’t arrest a shadow for a crime that has not yet been committed. And maybe there’s an innocent explanation, in which case they’ve embroiled the school and the families in a needless scandal.

The bystanders’ dilemma is almost reminiscent of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom, in which a number of small actions, harmless in themselves, add up to a murder. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle, but no one can see the whole picture. Most of these people have very sensible reasons for acting as they do. Some of them have no reason at all. In the process, each is making their little contribution toward a potential tragedy.

“When I look back,” he said, his tone bitter and wondering, “I can’t see a single step that I might have changed, then. Eact act and each decision seemed right at the time…And yet in the end, somehow, it added up to what Witt Kennick said. We gave away our responsibility. Somewhere. We passed it on to others and they acted out our parts for us.”

The Abductor is an examination of what people owe each other: parents and children, teachers and students, even total strangers. The crime, when it comes, creates a tremendous moral conflict for everyone involved, but it is only the climax of a number of smaller choices made along the way. This lends a welcome unpredictability to the plot. As in real life, it’s not always clear which people will turn out to be heroes, villains, or something in between—not even to themselves.

Second Opinion

Anthony Boucher, New York Times, April 1, 1962

Mrs. Hitchens combines strong cumulative suspense with neat and bitter sketches of the families involved in a forceful blend of irony and excitement.


The Abductor is out of print with only a few used copies available, though there is one inexpensive copy waiting to be snapped up.

Nets to Catch the Wind (1952) by Dolores Hitchens

Nets to Catch the Wind by Dolores Hitchens 1952 book cover

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“We came here to offer our sympathy,” Mrs. Poggett stuttered.

“Do you think I need it?”

A routine prison transfer goes terribly wrong when a gunman opens fire on a crowded train. The targets are convicted murderer Fred Tzegeti and his police escort Robert Luttrell. With a pile of cash found beside the bodies, local authorities are eager to hush up an apparent case of bribery. They reckoned without Amy Luttrell, who will do whatever it takes to clear her late husband’s name. Her quest for vengeance leads to powerful enemies who are just as determined to keep their sins buried—even if it means another dead body. Continue reading “Nets to Catch the Wind (1952) by Dolores Hitchens”

Sleep with Strangers (1955) by Dolores Hitchens

Sleep with Strangers by Dolores Hitchens 1955 book cover

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Money could do a lot of things in this world. It could build you a castle, Sader told himself—or a dungeon.”

There are two kinds of money in Long Beach, California. Old money means prosperous Midwesterners who settled there a few decades ago; they speak only to each other. That’s Felicia Wanderley. New money comes from oil, and they tell themselves they have more fun without those snobs on Ocean Avenue. That’s Perry Ajoukian.

As far as anyone knows, these two have never met. They have only two things in common: both vanished on the same night, and both families retained the firm of Sader and Scarborough to investigate. It’s up to Sader and his partner Dan to learn whether Mrs. Wanderley and young Ajoukian are connected by one more thingmurder. Continue reading “Sleep with Strangers (1955) by Dolores Hitchens”