Dorothy B. Hughes was a popular crime writer of the 1940s and 1950s, perhaps the best female crime writer of her day and, based on the prose and psychological complexity on display in this slim volume, very much the equal of her better-known male peers. A very perceptive afterword written by the mystery novelist Megan Abbot does a better job elucidating the feminist aspects of the book than I could hope to, so let me just say that In A Lonely Place is a necessary corrective to any reader who thinks of noir as a boys’ club.
Hughes’s novel centers on the friendship between former fighter pilot Dix Steele and his army buddy Brub Nicolai. (Yes, his name is Brub and, no, that is not explained.) Dix has been in California a few months and is a little embarrassed about his lack of money and social standing, especially compared to his rich friend. Despite his family wealth Brub has become a policeman with the LAPD, a job that makes his wife Sylvia nervous.
Sylvia is especially on edge because a man has been raping and strangling women all over LA at the rate of one a month, and her husband is one of the men charged with tracking down the madman responsible. The unemployed Dix pretends to be working on a detective novel and convinces Brub to feed him inside info on the case and even take him along with him to crime scenes.
Though it’s a short novel, Hughes still takes her time getting to the gist of the story, building tension like a train gaining steam until the truth of what’s going on starts to come into focus. Though there isn’t much mystery Hughes manages to work in some surprising moments and clever twists along the way.