In a Lonely Place is the second Dorothy B Hughes novel that I’ve read. I loved The Expendable Man when I read it back in 2017, and even picked it as one of my favourite books that year, but I’ve never worked out how to review it (or even how to recommend it, except “read this! It’s a thriller! It’s good!”). Trying to give even a vague synopsis without spoilers is very difficult. In a Lonely Place is a bit easier to introduce, and I’m happy to finally talk about what a great writer Hughes is. It’s a noir, written in 1947 and set in LA at around the same time. Noir is not normally my thing – I’ve seen too much parody of it, for a start – but this novel grabbed me from the beginning.
We start off the novel with the central character, Dix Steele. Dix is a cynical veteran, someone who’s too lazy for a real job and is living off low-level scamming and wealthy relatives. He’s handsome, charming, and awful. The third person narrator leaves us in no doubt that Steele is decidedly dangerous. Within a few pages, he’s watching a pretty girl in brown get off a bus, wondering if she gets off that bus at the same time every day and making plans to find out. He follows her home, taking a vicious thrill in watching her fear mount until she finally manages to lose him.
He could have caught up with her with ease but he didn’t. It was too soon. Better to hold back until he had passed the humped midsection of the walk, then to close in. She’d give a little scream, perhaps only a gasp, when he came up beside her. And he would say softly, ‘Hello.’ Only ‘Hello’, but she would be more afraid.
At the same time as we are being shown in no uncertain terms that Dix is a nasty piece of work, we’re also told that young women are being strangled all over the city by a malevolent stranger. It turns out that Burb, an old friend of Dix’s, is now working for the police. As Dix renews his connection with Burb and his wife Sylvia, he is elated to discover that Burb is on the case – that he can carefully track the police’s progress, or lack thereof, in finding the killer. He also meets his glamorous new neighbour, Laurel, and strikes up a relationship of sorts with her. In many respects, the book could be summarised as follows: Dix is trying to have his cake and eat it. Will he succeed?
I normally can’t stand novels narrated from such an unpleasant point of view (I abandoned the classic Malice Aforethought after the opening sentence: ‘It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took active steps in the matter’). It helps that the novel is told in third rather than first person, so I wasn’t required to actually share headspace with Dix, but I think it’s more than that. Dix’s voice is the right one to tell the story – as you’re reading, you can see the places where he is an imperfect or unreliable source as to what he’s seeing. For example, one of my issues with noir – and with Old Hollywood in general – is the insistence on love at first sight as a trope. It’s just not believable to me. However, because in this novel everything is from Dix’s point of view – and we know that he is fairly unhinged – it’s much more convincing. A day after his first interaction with Laurel, he’s protesting that her sudden belligerence “wasn’t like her”. This is nonsense – you can’t know what is or isn’t in someone’s character after a day – but it is believable that Dix would build up a story about a particular woman and then become furious when she steps outside the bounds of it. Classic noir is not known for its progressive depictions of dames or their getaway sticks. It’s clear, reading In a Lonely Place, that Hughes is playing with that, playing with the assumptions that Dix makes that would be made by a hardbitten heroic PI in a different novel. It makes for a really fascinating read.
There’s also a strong sense of the setting without Hughes ever resorting to purple prose to describe it. In one scene, Dix and Laurel go for a nighttime drive and pull up by the beach. Although I’ve never been to LA, I have been to plenty of beaches in the evening or at night, and she really conjured up memories of being by the sea after nightfall. I mean, fish and chips in Whitstable is somewhat less glamorous than a cocktail bar in LA, but apparently the experiences are more similar than I would have expected.
The wind caught at them as they left the car and descended to the beach. The wind and the deep sand pushed at them but they struggled on, down to the water’s edge. Waves were frost on the dark churning waters. Stars pricked through the curved sky. The rhythm pulsed, the crash and the slurring swish repeated endlessly, the smell of the sea was sharp. Spindrift salted their lips.
There are also dive bars, fancy apartment blocks, diners, and informal private clubs – each of which felt like a real place, rendered in a few economical words. I remember this being one of the things I liked about The Expendable Man, as well – I could almost picture the locations. I rarely ‘see’ books taking place in my mind’s eye, and when it happens I am always impressed by the writer’s skill.
I didn’t love In a Lonely Place as much as The Expendable Man, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. My expectations were both met and subverted at different points throughout the novel, the tension is built up very effectively, and the four central characters – Dix, Laurel, Brub, and Sylvia – are more three dimensional than I would expect from a crime novel of this type. Hughes wrote 14 novels in total, though not all of them have been republished so they might be difficult to get hold of. I’m very much looking forward to collecting them over the next few years, and gradually working my way through them. I hope they all hold up this well!