Book Review: “In a Lonely Place” — In the Mind of a Misogynist
Dorothy B. Hughes is one of the finest female practitioners of noir; ample proof can be found in the darkly glittering In a Lonely Place.
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. New York Review Books Classics, 224 pages, $14.95.
By Matt Hanson
Great writers that they were, Chandler, Hammett and their ilk made much of being members of a boy’s club. The customary iconography of noir is fun to read about but decidedly macho: the fedoras, terse talk, phallic guns and deadly dames. It’s never in doubt that we are seeing the underworld from a man’s point of view. The female noir writer is a rare and under-appreciated breed, especially back in the heyday of the hard-boiled.
Dorothy B. Hughes is one of the finest of the female practitioners of noir, and ample proof of that can be found in New York Review of Books Classics edition of her darkly glittering In a Lonely Place. Her 1947 novel is probably best known as the basis for Nicholas Ray’s disturbing film about Hollywood’s gritty-to-the-point of psychotic side. Hughes wrote about a dozen novels over her long career, which was cut short because of family obligations. This volume is her most popular work, its power stemming for what we might call its “wokeness” — it takes the issue of toxic masculinity (one of noir’s traditionally difficult issues) and flips it on its head.
The amusingly named Dixon Steele is a Princeton grad who has just left the Air Force and is living in Los Angeles on borrowed time and borrowed money. He first appears standing alone on a bridge in the middle of the night, gazing into the mist and longing for the “power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky.” Dix isn’t just a soldier getting over the war. His nostalgia for the way it felt to be a Nazi-bombing flyboy is linked to a different, more sinister craving for authority — he has an unnerving but creepily matter-of-fact habit of stalking young women. It just so happens that LA is buzzing with the lurid news that a killer is on the loose; the bodies of strangled young women are turning up all over town.
If this sounds like a plot spoiler, it isn’t — the writing is much too good to see this as a mere who-dun-it. Hughes is masterful in leaking the narrative’s secret early on, creating suspense by keeping Chekhov’s celebrated gat locked and loaded. The police are flummoxed, including Dix’s old Air Force pal Brub, who now works for the LAPD. Formula would demand that the killer hide in plain sight and/or use his freedom to taunt his dogged investigators. In this case, the ‘real’ villain avoids suspicion precisely because, to the outside world, he seems perfectly normal, just like one of the boys.
The suspense builds as we follow Dix through his late nights and bleary afternoons, brooding alone with the blinds shut against the California sunshine. Most of the action takes place largely in Dix’s mind — the proximity to his perverse mania is unsettling. Dix is living off whatever he can scam or scrounge through his family connections. And he resents not getting what he believes he deserves: his inability to share the prosperity he sees all around him makes him dangerously unbalanced: “He wasn’t licked. He could still smash, walk over the broken pieces, come up bigger than ever. Bigger and smarter and tougher than anyone. He was going to get what he wanted. He was going to have money and he knew where he was going to get it. Once he had his hands on the money, there’d be no more second best for him. He’d be the top man wherever he wanted to go. No one would put him in second place again.” I am not a mind reader, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this is what Donald Trump’s inner monologue sounds like. At this point in history, Dixon Steele isn’t prowling the streets of LA — he’s running for office somewhere.
Hughes zeros in on Dix’s sense of thwarted entitlement and how its building resentment is projected around him. The character doesn’t realize how his self-hatred colors his approach to women. He alternately desires and despises females: “To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust.” At times, Dix thinks he’s in love, but when his advances are rebuffed there’s hell to pay. At times, he even comes to believe that he’s slick enough to steal Brub’s lady, is a level of arrogant cluelessness that sets up a trap that Dix doesn’t notice until it’s too late.
It’s a testament to Hughes’s narrative skill that she can keep the pages turning and the twists coming without veering away from her icy clear gaze at the book’s unwholesome central character. Given the uncanny vividness of this portrait, I’d like to think that it couldn’t have been easy for Hughes to get inside of Dix’s mind. (Can a woman take empathy too far when examining misogyny?) Combine the recent cultural uproar about the dangers of male entitlement (sexual assault, harassment, etc), with the fact that this novel was written decades before such a discussion was possible, and you can’t help but admire Hughes’s courage at taking up the unsavory challenge.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.