CBR Bingo Square: Violence
Maddeningly, I now don’t know what put Dorothy Hughes’s 1947 noir In a Lonely Place on my radar. (I thought it was Susan Straight’s 1001-book literary map of America, but…apparently not?) All I know is that I am a sucker for A) mystery novels, and B) novels about my home state, and what reliably ticks both boxes? Noir. And Dorothy Hughes was a new discovery for me, which made this novel all the more appealing.
Also, deliciously, In a Lonely Place isn’t a whodunnit, because we know from very early who, exactly, is strangling young brunette women in post-WWII Los Angeles: it’s the main character, Dixon Steele, himself. Dix is a demobilized American pilot who finds himself lost and adrift now that the war is over, and he has washed up in LA, where he appears to be sponging off an old college friend (living in his apartment and wearing his clothes while the guy is “in Rio”) and, every month, murdering a young woman. Dix fancies himself clever and rational, but his own actions undermine this from the start when he impulsively decides to look up his old army buddy Brub Nicolai, who is now happily married to a cool, beautiful blonde named Sylvia and, just as importantly, is a detective working the case of the serial strangler haunting the byways of LA. Dix also starts up a flirtation with a neighbor, the beautiful redheaded would-be actress Laurel. (All the women are beautiful. It is a noir, after all.)
The NYRB reprint edition I read includes an excellent foreword that argues the novel is a stealth feminist classic, revealing Dix’s inherent misogyny (he both desires and despises the women he encounters, which drives his criminal behavior), and it’s true that Dix overestimates his rationality and underestimates that of the women around him: he is in fact profoundly insecure, emotional, and neurotic, traits he constantly projects onto Laurel, who is wounded from a failed first marriage into a rich family. But it is also a portrait of how war can take someone with Dix’s insecurities and amplify them profoundly: WWII gave him focus and purpose, and the Air Force created a hierarchy that wasn’t based on wealth, which Dix, as a middle-class Princeton man, found comforting, but has lost now that the war is over. Having tasted both wealth (at Princeton) and respect and success (as a pilot), Dix doesn’t know what to do with himself, and he takes it out on the women he murders, and also, to some extent, on men like Brub, who seem to have what he lacks (happiness, stability, community, and, yes, at least some money). Hughes writes, from Dix’s perspective, “He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.” Indeed, excitement and power are what Dix craves most, and murder is the only way he has now to recapture those feelings he could acceptably pursue during the war.
The thrill of the novel is not the mystery of the murders, but rather of how Dix will ultimately get caught, because of course he will: driven as he is by his insecurities and desires, and reading everyone else’s happiness as a personal slight against himself, Dix is nowhere near as rational as he thinks, and is bound to slip in front of Brub or Sylvia or Laurel. But how he’ll slip, and how the trap will snap shut around him, is what is so compulsively readable. Hughes also captures so well all the little signifiers of life in Los Angeles: what clothes spell out and suggest, what different streets and neighborhoods and restaurants mean, in a way that makes it clear she knew the California she wrote about.
Hughes wrote fourteen novels, most of then between 1940-1952. It makes it sound like she had a short career, but she was also a lauded critic of detective fiction who reviewed the genre for forty years for multiple newspapers, including the LA Times and the New York Herald-Tribune, and she wrote the original landmark critical biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. However it was that I stumbled upon this novel, I’m glad I did, and I’m going to have to read more Hughes going forward.
(Also, this book feels like a successor to Fritz Lang’s movie M and a major predecessor to novels like American Psycho, given the technique of making your murderer the main character.)
Content note: Dix is a misogynist murderer, obvs, and Hughes suggests without detail that he’s also a rapist (she is not prurient or voyeuristic about this; expect no details); also, a dog is killed at one point, too.