In 1947, an excellent thriller needed only four characters: two women, one a respectable policeman’s wife the other a woman of questionable character, and two men, one a police detective the other a serial killer. With these four characters and a small supporting cast, Dorothy Hughes created an excellent noir thriller In A Lonely Place that can more than hold its own against any of her male contemporaries. I’d argue it can hold its own against anyone writing crime novels today, as well, and it may end up one of my top ten favorite reads this year.
The Los Angeles of In a Lonely Place is in the grip of a serial killer, a strangler who has murdered one woman every 30 days for the past six months, when Dickson “Dix” Steele decides to contact his old war buddy Brub Nicolai. The two have lost contact since the war ended and they each returned from England. Brub is married now–his wife Sylvia is nervous about the strangler and worried for her police detective husband who has been working the case for months. Dix tolerates Sylvia while milking Brub for details about the strangler case claiming they will help him with the detective novel he is writing, secretly excited by the thrill of being so close to the police officers who are hunting him.
Dix stays in the apartment of another war buddy, Mel Terris, who has left Los Angeles for a job in Rio. His neighbor is Laurel Grey, twice divorced wanna-be movie star. The two quickly fall into bed and then into love, but Laurel knows that Dix is broke, living on the charity of a rich uncle, and the terms of her divorce are such that she loses all alimony if she remarries. Their affair is doomed long before she begins to suspect Dix has not told her the truth about where Mel Terris has gone.
Although In a Lonely Place is about as bare bones as a detective thriller can get, Dorothy Hughes creates a tension filled, page turning noir story without depicting a single death. The reader learns that Dix is the killer by the end of chapter one. The rest of the novel follows him as he grows closer to Brub and becomes more involved in the investigation of his own crimes. Knowing that he is the killer gives each scene in the book an undercurrent of dramatic tension that builds nicely as the pages turn. All the narrator has to do is tell us Dix is alone in the room with Syliva, and the reader becomes concerned for her.
It makes for a fun book?
But why is it a feminist book? (My edition is part of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York’s Femmes Fatales series of pulp fiction re-releases.) For one thing, while she is not well know today, it’s clear that Dorothy Hughes can write a detective story as well as any of her male peers. Take this description of Laurel from her first meeting with Dix Steele:
She was like all women, curious about your private life. He laughed at her; she’d find out only as much as he wished. “An old friend,” he laughed. “Pre-war. Princeton.” Princeton meant money and social position to her, calculation came quickly under her skin. She was greedy and callous and a bitch, but she was fire and a man needed fire. “I’m from New York,” he threw in carelessly. It sounded better than New Jersey.
“She was fire and a man needed fire.” Okay, that’s a bit cheesy, but it’s true enough and certainly a driving force in noir fiction of the pulp era. There’s an undercurrent of sexuality in noir pulp that exploits as much as it illustrates the moment in American history that produced it. But how does In a Lonely Place advance a feminist critical stance?
In her afterward to the novel, which is well worth reading, Lisa Maria Hogeland makes the case that Ms. Huges is critiquing Dix’s misogyny as she depicts it. Take the quotation above and the way it links the hatred of women with lust for them. The novel stays focused on Dix throughout, though it is not a first person narrative and no attempt is made to offer a psychological explanation for Dix’s psychopathology. Ms. Hogeland believes this is itself a feminist writing at a time when bad mothers and early experiences with women were often blamed for misogyny. Think of how sorry we are meant to feel for Pyscho‘s Norman Bates once we learn how terrible his mother was. Additionally, Ms. Hughes never places blame on Dix’s victims. They are never “that sort of girl” like the victims in 1970’s and 80’s slasher films so often were. Even Dix himself never puts the blame on his victims, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That crimes against women are solely the responsibility of the men who commit them was a strictly feminist notion in 1947, it may still be today.
Ms. Hughes never depicts Dix’s crimes on the page which Ms. Hogeland reads as a feminist stance in that this makes it impossible for anyone to enjoy their depiction. Watching the murder of a woman is not part of the fun in In a Lonely Place the way it is so many detective thrillers.
Ms. Hogeland argues that Dorothy Hughes present three possible motivations for Dix’s crimes. Early in the novel he is presented as a veteran having some difficulty readjusting to civilian life. A former pilot, he is nostalgic for the life he lived during the war. Even at that time the psychotic war veteran was a familiar trope in pulp fiction. Before he knows who the killer is, Brub argues that the strangler is a killer because he kills, refusing to look further than that for a motive. By the end we discover that Dix’s murders began when he killed the first girl he ever loved out of jealousy. Whatever the reason for his crimes, Ms. Hogeland believes that what matters in the end is how normal Dix appears to be. The fact that he is not visibly different from the men around him is meant to bring the masculinity of the late 1940’s itself into question. It’s not a comforting idea.
Dorothy Hughes published 14 crime novels during a ten year period, ending her work to take care of her ailing mother. She continued to publish criticism and biographies of the mystery genre and its authors until her death in 1993. Today only two of her books remain in print.
Maybe a publisher could re-issue them with fancy covers and new titles, say “The Girl in a Lonely Place.” I’d love to read more of Dorothy Hughes.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2011, thrillers with the word ‘girl’ in the title continue to sell very well. What does that say about modern readers? Why are so many still captivated by “the girl”? Will we ever grow up enough to be as equally interested in “the woman?”
That bit of snark aside, I admit I had totally forgotten this book until I read the first paragraph above. Then it all came back to me. It’s a terrific book. I highly recommend it. And I highly recommend taking some time to re-read your old blog posts. You’ll be surprised by how much you have forgotten and by how much your remember.