Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)

In a Lonely Place, jacket of first edition

[Image source:]

* Spoilers for this noir masterpiece will shortly come thick and fast. In contrast to what I wrote recently about Fielding's Tom Jones, there is no double narrative in this novel; it's supremely a book that delivers all of its payload in a single intense reading experience. But the upshot is the same: your first reading is important and you don't want to be knowing too much in advance.


Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray in the film In a Lonely Place (1950)
[Image source:]

Nicholas Ray's 1950 film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, is a noir masterpiece too. It uses the names and some of the situations from Hughes' novel, but the screenwriters built a radically different story on this foundation. (You could put it this way: the film focuses on one idea within the novel and then explores a kind of variation on it.)

OK, enough messing about, here we go.


The entire novel is third-person but written from a single character's point of view. That character is Dickson ("Dix") Steele - we learn his name on page 5. By then we already know a lot about him and we realize that sharing his head-space is going to be a scary, claustrophobic but absorbing experience. He is a seriously disturbed individual. On the second page we follow him stalking a woman that he's never seen before, apparently with the intention of attacking her (a plan frustrated by the ill-timed passing of lighted vehicles along the dark beachside road).

He started thinking about her as she was stepping off the bus; she wasn't coming home from shopping, no parcels; she wasn't going to a party, the tailored suit, sensible shoes.

In these brilliant opening pages, we begin to orient our way around Dix's psychotic inner world. The apparently innocent phrase "thinking about her" means locking on to her the way a hovering kestrel locks on to a mouse. This is typical of how each item in the simple vocabulary needs to be interpreted specifically in the context of Dix's experience. Dix gets "angry" very easily and instantly; his nerves are in shreds; he dislikes all loud noises and he dislikes loud people and he dislikes women more than men, but he's a sociopath. The anger has a drastic quality, immediately threatening violence. "Good", applied to feelings, experiences or things, implies the opposite: implies his own tranquility (there's a lot of "good" in the first date with Laurel).

He hadn't needed a drink; he'd relaxed on the bus.

Dix had thought he needed a drink to recover his tranquility after the ill-timed intrusion of the traffic into his plan. Now he has the drink, but observes the lack of need with satisfaction; he's no longer dependent on drink, he has found other more potent ways of releasing the anger.

By the end of the first chapter we know for certain he's a killer. Some readers seem to remain in doubt for longer, but anyone who follows his thought closely through the curt hard-boiled prose will know it from the first two or three pages, will immediately grasp why he's shocked to find out that his war-time pal Brub is now a detective. Or even earlier, meeting Brub's wife Sylvia:

Dix stepped forward to match her smile, to take her hand. Except for that first moment, he hadn't shown anything. Even that wouldn't have been noticed. 
What is it that he didn't show, or only for one moment? The feral look that reveals his inner self - a look that came, we infer, when he discovers Brub has a pretty wife and this breaks the momentary man-to-man idyll of seeing Brub again.

The tension in the book doesn't depend on any mystery about "who dunnit". The tension is about what will stop the killings, and it's uncomfortably two-edged. On the one hand, we want the killings to stop (Dix rapes his victims first, before strangling them). But we also want this great read to carry on, which in effect means rooting for Dix and wanting him to evade arrest. And all this time we're inside Dix's head as he ingeniously negotiates difficult subjects and difficult situations. Dix's feeling of shock about Brub's job soon changes to a feeling of intrigue. He likes to play increasingly dangerous games; he likes being the hunted as well as the hunter.

It sounds unlikely, but this book has a love interest. Dix falls for the glamorous Laurel Gray, his neighbour (automatically, therefore, not a potential victim). He falls for her completely, idealistically, and monomaniacally. There's no dissonance here. What Hughes convinces us is that Dix in love, (thinking, feeling and behaving like every other man of his time in love), is exactly the same guy who rapes and strangles his unknown victims on the night-time streets of LA. And the same guy who talks chicks with good old Brub. And the same guy who was recognized for distinguished service as a daredevil fighter pilot, flying wild.

The eventual outcome turns out to have an ironic aspect. Dix's ingenuity is fairly foolproof, and he's able to put right the few mistakes that he inevitably makes. He exults in his control; even in this first chapter, he reflects on how easy it is to tell lies.  He can afford to play his dangerous games, e.g. getting pally with the police who are investigating his case. But when his downfall comes, it turns out to be caused by things that he can't control and isn't even aware of because they're outside his experience. Sylvia may or may not have seen that brief moment of "showing" that he's aware of. But what she definitely did see, right from this first meeting, is that something about Dix is terribly wrong. And soon enough Laurel Gray, though she had nothing much to do with the case, began to see it too. One of the main things that Dix doesn't take any account of in his world is that women can talk openly to each other. He has no sense of a community among women; he sees them as individual objects whose only meaningful relation is with the men who gaze at them; so far as they are aware of each other, he supposes that the only thing they experience is competition and jealousy. But when Laurel and Sylvia get together and compare notes, Dix is undone. After that the police unravel the case with ridiculous ease, as is briefly recounted on the book's last page. Dix hunts women, and it's the women who find him out.


The writing is brilliant, anyway, but not in the wisecracking way of Chandler. Dix is too damaged for that. The stylistic triumph isn't about big words but about staying within his mind.

He stretched off the bed.

Hughes is an intuitive master of the semi-colon. And of the US/Aus habit, unusual to UK eyes, of speedily deploying indirect-speech words within accounts of direct speech: "Did I?" she puzzled; "He couldn't stop," Brub denied, etc.

She said suddenly, 'Let's go down where we can really smell it.'
Dix said, 'Sawdust will give you a bay window if you aren't careful.'

A scan of the reviews on suggests that nothing I've said here is very original, and that there's a high degree of appreciative uniformity in how Hughes' novel is read. Some of that may be due to Lisa Maria Hogeland's Afterword to the Feminist Press edition of 2003, which I haven't seen.

For a broader view of Hughes' oeuvre, take a look at Sarah Weinman's 2012 review-article in the Los Angeles Review of Books:



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