I came across Dorothy B. Hughes excellent noir novel In a Lonely Place in Books to Die For, a book of essays on important crime novels. Each of the articles was written by a famous crime writer. The book has been edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. The article on In a Lonely Place was written by Megan Abbott. I’m sure I would have liked In A Lonely Place without reading Abbott’s essay but I might have missed a few things.
Hughes novel is one of the first serial killer novels and inspired later works like Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. I know that many readers of this blog are averse to serial killer novels and I understand why. But this one is a very different book. There are three types of serial killer novels—those from the point of view of the victim, those from the point of view of the detectives and those from the killer’s point of view. The mainstream/bestselling novels usually fall into category one or two, while this one falls into the third category. Unfortunately, the blurb gives a very wrong impression and the reader thinks (s)he is reading a thriller-type story. That was never Hughes intention. Without the blurb it’s clear from the beginning that we’re in the head of the killer, Dix Steele. Dix is a WWII veteran who has just moved to L.A. and, on the spur of a moment, contacts Brub Nicolai, a former army buddy, who served with him in the UK, not knowing that he is a detective. An other perpetrator would have stayed away or fled, not so Dix Steele. He loves the idea of being able to follow the investigation very closely.
Here’s an early quote which doesn’t only give an idea of Dorothy B. Hughes’ writing but also of how eerie this scenario is. Brub is obviously talking to Dix.
Brub started, “Wha-” He realized Dix’s question. ” I guess it’s pretty much my fault. Ever since the thing started, I’ve been afraid for her. She’s lived in the canyon all her life. She never had any fear, wandered all over it, any time of the day. But the canyon at night, the way the fogs come in— it’s a place for him.” His face was again angry, helplessly angry. “I’ve scared her. She’s alone so much. I never know what hours I have to keep. We have good neighbours, a couple of our best friends are right across the road. But you know our street. It’s dark and lonely and the way our house is set up there—” He broke off. “I’m the one who’s scared; I’ve infected her. And I can’t help it. I can’t pretend until we caught him.”
Megan Abbott emphasized in her essay that this is far more than a serial killer novel or an ordinary noir. The author went further than others in showing how difficult it was for veterans to return. How in many cases, they felt like their masculinity was in danger. The book is as much about gender as it is about crime. Men like Dix Steele had to reinvent themselves after the war. With the end of the war, they lost their identity.
What made me love this book is that we actually pity Dix Steele. He’s more than a little troubled and his suffering is genuine. Here’s a quote to illustrate this:
A man couldn’t live alone; he needed friends. He needed a woman, a real woman. Like Brub and Sylvia. Like that stupid Cary had that stupid Maude. Better than being alone.
It wasn’t often it hit him hard. It was the balmy night and the early dusk and the look of the lamps through opened windows and the sound of music from radios in the lighted rooms. he’d eschewed human relationship for something stronger, something a hell of a lot better.
What makes Dix Steele so tragic is that he is not only greedy and full of longing— for women he can’t have, for status, money, relationships, the “good life”— but also oddly hopeful. He believes that with the right woman everything might be different. When he sees Laurel Grey for the first time, a young actress who is just as greedy for the good life, as he is, he genuinely believes, she might be his saviour.
I love nothing as much as atmospherical crime novels and this one might be one of the greatest in this regard. Set in L.A., it really brings the city to life and makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions. I thought that fog and mist were particular to San Francisco but reading this, I have to assume that the L.A. area (at the time?) was constantly foggy. Reading how this lonely, deranged and driven killer hunts for his prey in the fog made for great reading.
In a Lonely Place has been made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. I haven’t seen it but I get the impression, the ending is very different.
Dorothy B. Hughes had an unusual writing career. She published twelve novels, three of which were made into movies, before she stopped writing in 1950. Allegedly, because she took care of her mother and her grandchildren. She died in 1993. It’s a bit sad to think that this great writer spent the last forty years of her life not writing.