In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
The name “Dorothy B. Hughes” may not be one that elicits immediate recognition from casual readers of noir fiction, though that should change with the release of a new edition of her much acclaimed novel (and basis for the eponymous Humphrey Bogart film) In a Lonely Place. For modern readers, noir is a genre that brings to mind certain tropes, namely the “damsel in distress” — a time when female characters were gorgeous, fearful, and one-dimensional. Hughes, however, is a different kind of crime writer: she conjures a bone-chilling male predator as her story’s primary suspect and skillfully balances him against female leads who are anything but helpless.
Even without these sexist tropes, readers of traditional crime fiction will undoubtedly find satisfaction in Hughes’ writing. The style and cadence of this novel is classic; there’s plenty of coy dialog, and the characters never skimp on offering each other a mixed drink. Also true to form are the characters’ names, which almost seem to border on satire. Dix Steele, a war veteran who’s recently moved to Hollywood from back East, is our primary suspect. We meet him on a lonely evening’s wandering, where, through a chain of happenstance, he is reunited with Brub Nicolai, an old friend from the service now working as an LAPD detective. While catching up, we learn that Brub and his wife, Sylvia, are concerned by two recent crimes where local women have been raped and murdered while walking alone at night. The following day, Dix muses silently about whether Brub’s wife might have a thing for him: “It might be definitely amusing to be with the Nicolais tonight,” he thinks. “It might be that Sylvia was the one who wanted him along, that her play of indifference was a cover-up. He was clinically aware of his appeal to women.”
As Brub and Dix continue to pal around, readers are fed various details from the case that begin to further implicate Dix as a suspect, though his careful cover-ups leave Brub and the entire police force clueless and without any substantive leads.
Dix’s fastidious attention to detail is reflected in physical descriptions of the various places and characters he encounters through the course of the story. His stylishness combined with his searing contempt for women makes him a worthy and equally disturbing precursor to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Further into the novel, the reader will begin to notice the almost obsessive attention he devotes to his own wardrobe: “He dressed in the suit he liked best; he didn’t wear it often. It was distinctive, a British wool, gray with a faint overplaid of lighter gray, a touch of dim red.”
Hughes puts her main character’s misogyny front and center from the get-go, beginning with cruel observations about the woman who cleans his apartment: “The maid was a shapeless sack with heavy feet. She came to this apartment between two and three in the afternoon. He didn’t know the maid’s name; he wouldn’t have recognized her on the street.”
While the crimes are undoubtedly gruesome, the thrill of the novel lies in the pursuit of the suspect, and the best part is when Hughes begins to skillfully break through Dix’s seemingly unwavering male confidence, outsmarting him with satisfying precision. It’s Brub’s wife, Sylvia, whose instincts lead to Dix’s transition from close family friend to suspect. It is a thrill to witness his slow but inevitable unraveling. Ultimately, In a Lonely Place manages to resist the pull of the tired and helpless damsel in distress while serving up classic noir fiction that will not disappoint.