"in a Lonely Place" by Dorothy B. Hughes (published by Penguin Books)
Noir and more from a grand master
It is one of the first serial killer novels and is thus often cited as inspiration for a host of other such works, Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me” (1952), Thomas Harris’ “The Silence of the Lambs” (1988) and Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” (1991) to name just three. Whether those authors and others appreciate the comparison is not known, but “In a Lonely Place” features in “Books to Die For”, a 2012 volume of 120 essays on important crime novels.
Each essay is written by a famous crime writer, and “In a Lonely Place” is spotlighted by Megan Abbott, a contemporary American author of crime fiction and of non-fiction analyses of hardboiled writing. Hughes’ book here sits in company from Agatha Christie to Lee Child, from Edgar Allan Poe to P.D. James, from Sherlock Holmes to Hannibal Lecter and Philip Marlowe to Lord Peter Wimsey
One general theory holds that there are three types of serial killer novels, those from the point of view of the victim, those from the perspective of the detectives and those from the killer’s point of view. The mainstream/bestselling novels usually fall into category one or two, while “In a Lonely Place” is in the third.
It’s clear from the beginning that we’re in the head of the slayer. Women are the object of Dix (Dickson) Steele’s murderous rage, and he has strangled six to death on a monthly basis, as the urge consumes him. Reading on, it is revealed that this spree in foggy 1940s Los Angeles actually began far away some time before.
Further, by creating a couple of strong female characters who become the book’s moral victors through their own actions, Hughes is now credited with having written a subly feminist book in 1947, even if she reportedly decried the term herself. One of the many new editions over the years came from The Feminist Press.
Dorothy B. Hughes – the B stands for Belle, and Hughes replaced her maiden name, Flanagan, when she married Lewis Hughes in 1932 – offered much more than a serial killer novel or an ordinary noir. Another reading of this book is that the author went further than others in showing how difficult it was for war veterans to return home; how in many cases, they felt that their masculinity was endangered.
In this way the book is as much about gender as it is about crime. Men such as Steele, a World War Two fighter pilot, had to reinvent themselves back in civilian life. With the armistice, they lost their identity. Hughes portrays the crushing anticlimax felt by a hero who returns home expecting to pick up where he’d left off – but there’s nothing to pick up.
His tragedy 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 clover as he is, he genuinely believes she might be his saviour.
Instead, she and another woman, Sylvia Nicolai, the wife of Los Angeles cop Brub Nicolai, are his downfall. While Brub and his fellow homicide detectives flounder in the absence of standard clues – reliable witnesses, fingerprints, tyre marks and the like – it is the women who sense something seriously wrong under Steele’s hopeful exterior.
Postwar Los Angeles, then, is a city of promise and prosperity but it can be a lonely place where the American Dream is showing its seamy underside. For Steele, nothing comes close to matching “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky”.
He’s living in an apartment borrowed from someone who is “away in Rio”, though we later learn that Steele has bumped him off too. He’s using his host’s car, clothes and credit accounts. Steele’s frustrations are growing. Pretending to be penning a novel, he has to rely on Uncle Fergus for money, and hope he will fork up. Where is the good life he was promised? Why does he always get a raw deal?
The cynical veteran prowls the gloomy Pacific-side city at night, seeking out lonely places such as quiet bus stops, darkened beaches and movie houses just emptying out, on the hunt for solitary young women. When he looks up his old Air Corps buddy Brub, he finds out Brub now works for the Los Angeles Police Department and is hunting the strangler.
The friendship gives Steele some entrée to the progress of the investigations by the Homicide section, but the detectives will need that female help to discover the killer under their noses.
Steele falls in love with Laurel, a fiery redhead who lives in his apartment building. She is a very independent woman, a femme fatale with brains, and frustrates his desire to live “happily ever after” with her. He oscillates between a desire for true love and happiness, and a raging hatred of humanity and its social codes.
The reader slowly learns about his inner psychology and his past, including his obsessive love for a woman in London that led him to strangle her and begin a spree of murders in Europe and the United States that culminates in LA. The novel builds to a crescendo as he spirals into insanity, and Sylvia lures him into a trap where he tries to strangle her before confessing to all.
Hughes paints an atmospheric city with effective use of the landscape and much fog, perfect for a lonely, deranged and driven killer to hunt his prey. An oceanside bar she describes is obviously the place known to this day as one of the oldest gay bars in LA. Any informed Los Angelino would probably know it.
The novel is a twisty page-turner but creaks slightly at times, such as the improbably quick mutual attraction and then instant jealousy between Steele and Lauren.
Dorothy B. Hughes was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1904 and wrote 14 primarily hardboiled novels and a volume of poetry. She was also a professional crime fiction reviewer and wrote for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Herald Tribune and, for 40 years, the Albuquerque Tribune.
She lived most of her life in New Mexico and began publishing hard-boiled crime novels in 1940. Her “The Fallen Sparrow” from 1942 was filmed in 1943 with John Garfield and Maureen O’Hara, and “Ride the Pink Horse” from 1946 was filmed in 1947 starring Robert Montgomery and Wanda Hendrix. Her last work of fiction was the noir “The Expendable Man” in 1963.
In 1951 she received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in the category of Outstanding Mystery Criticism, and in 1978 she was given the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master award. She died in 1993.