Dorothy B. Hughes’s 1947 In a Lonely Place (just reissued by New York Review Books Classics) suggests that the current ongoing reemergence of American female crime writers from the ’40s to the ’60s may be approaching what occurred with the male counterparts of these writers in the ’80s, when Black Lizard and other presses began reissuing the out-of print work of Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, and others. One imprimatur of literary regard came in 2015, when the Library of America issued a two-volume set of female crime writers from the ’40s and ’50s in which Hughes shared space with, to name a few, the likes of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Margaret Millar, and Dolores Hitchens.
There will always be those whose reaction to women crime writers is to think they are delivering a compliment when they say that women can write just as tough as men. But that view reduces the work at hand — whether written by men or women — to little more than braggadocio. The unifying point of the best pulp writers was to drag the reader into squirrelly states of anxiety, guilt, complicity, and, over the typically brief lengths of these novels (usually no more than 200 pages), deliver the supremely uncomfortable experience of walking around in the bodies of the protagonists.
Those states are the “lonely place” Hughes refers to in her title, the moods of resentment, longing, paranoia, jealousy, and rage that her protagonist, the serial strangler Dix Steele, exists in. The implicit topic of In a Lonely Place is misogyny, but Hughes’s novel is one is which a serial killer of women is far weaker than the women he kills. As the crime novelist Megan Abbott points out in her Afterword, Dix Steele certainly foreshadows Tom Ripley, the much smoother psychopath who was to take center stage for much of Patricia Highsmith’s career. But Hughes’s vision of violence also prefigures Hannah Arendt’s 1970 On Violence. Faced with civil unrest and the often worse police response, Vietnam, and the calls for revolutionary violence among the radical faction of the New Left, Arendt set out to distinguish violence from the concepts of strength and force and power. With would-be revolutionaries fond of quoting Mao’s dictum that all political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, Arendt wrote, “Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of [violence] is power.”
Making a similar distinction between strength and violence, Hughes gives us a portrait of a murderer who, though calculating, commits his crimes in a febrile state, one so fragile and agitated the merest thing can break it. In the opening pages, Dix is stalking a potential victim he sees walking home alone at night (the M.O. for all his killings), and he’s enjoying the pursuit: “He didn’t walk faster, he continued to saunter but he lengthened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid.”
But like a coughing fit ruining a movie take, a sudden interruption shatters Dix’s fantasy of control:
She had just passed over the mid hump, she was on the final stretch of down grade. Walking fast. But as he reached that section, a car turned at the corner below, throwing its blatant light up on her, on him. Again anger plucked at his face, his pace slowed . . . The girl was safe. He could feel the relaxation in her footsteps. Anger beat him like a drum.
Hughes’s imagery amplifies the meaning of the moment: Dix is thrust literally into the light, cast from the safety of the hunt. It’s a slap in the face that Hughes follows this potential victim’s escape with Dix committing a successful murder, presented by chance, a few hours later, as he is on his way home from spending the evening with friends.
The friends are Brub Nicolai and his wife, Sylvia. Brub and Dix were stationed together in England during the war. What Dix doesn’t know about Brub when he looks up his old friend is that Brub is now an LAPD detective investigating the stranglings that are plaguing the city. There’s an off-kilter comedy in the scenes where Dix socializes with the Nicolais (almost always at Brub’s instigation). Dix is living off a monthly check from a stingy uncle back east. He’s convinced the old man he’s in L.A. to try his hand at writing a novel. That’s the line he uses with Brub and Sylvia, claiming it’s a mystery novel, thus giving him license to inquire about Brub’s methods and gain an inside line on how the hunt to uncover him is going. But the uneasy interactions between Dix and Sylvia, his seeing her as a rival for Brub’s attention and his (correct) hunch that she senses his sickness, are an echo of the relationship at the center of the novel: Dix’s affair with the aspiring actress Laurel Grey.
Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film of the novel, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife at the time, replaced the novel’s plot with what was essentially Ray’s meditation on his failing marriage. By contrast, Hughes’s novel (though written from Dix’s point of view) is very much a woman’s take on masculinity and its limits. A male writer might very well have presented Laurel as a sexpot, if not a femme fatale, her assured manner and ability to verbally parry the men after her used as the mark of a hard little number. Hughes presents Laurel’s toughness as a necessary defense mechanism. Laurel is wised up but not unfeeling. Dix literally bumps into her at the L.A. apartment complex where they both live, and this is how Hughes describes her:
She stood in his way and looked him over slowly, from crown to toe. The way a man looked over a woman, not the reverse . . . He stood like a dolt, gawking at her.
And that’s the core of the relationship. Laurel falls into bed with Dix, but she can’t bring herself to fall in love with him. Her instinct prevents her, and a far more conscious part of her knows that Dix can never give her what she dreams of. To Hughes’s immense credit, she presents that recognition not as avarice but simply as the knowledge of someone who’s seen the horrible stresses money brings into love affairs and marriages and is determined to avoid them.
There is also, in Hughes’s line “He stood like a dolt, gawking at her” an awful shadow of the self-loathing that drives Dix. For Dix the ecstasy of falling in love with a woman like Laurel is the pathway to torment, an invitation to indulge his insecurities. The most reasonable and psychologically astute explanation for male violence against women is male feelings of inferiority, and yet in depiction after depiction, novelists and filmmakers often ignore the distinction between violence and power, the distinction Arendt insisted on. It doesn’t take long for Dix to go from feeling he’s found the girl of his dreams to wondering who she’s with if she comes home later than expected, to fretting about how he will afford to entertain her and clothe her, thinking of Laurel as an exquisite possession that must be displayed in an appropriately elegant setting. What Hughes is describing in these moments is common enough male possessiveness. What’s startling is that she’s placed it in the mind of a psychopath. This isn’t soapbox sociology, in the manner of Susan Brownmiller’s famous declaration that all men are potential rapists. It’s a psychologically acute perception of the continuum on which jealousy and feelings of emasculation and violence reside. Hughes puts the reader inside a dual consciousness, making us feel simultaneously women’s physical vulnerability and men’s worry that, in the eyes of women, they will never be man enough.
The kicker — and it’s a stunning one — is that Dix isn’t wrong. That appraising look Laurel gives him when she first sees him, the distance and suspicion he senses in Sylvia, are not paranoia on his part. They know something is off with him, intuitively grasping what all his artifice attempts to conceal. And there’s an even larger and more unsettling context. The lonely place of the title is not just Dix’s state of mind, not just the friend’s apartment he has obtained Tom Ripley−style and uses as a hidey-hole. The lonely place is America itself. In the opening paragraph, Dix stands on the shore of the Pacific at night, imagining he is once again flying one of the fighter planes he piloted in the war. “It wasn’t often,” Hughes writes, “he could capture any of that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky. There was a touch of it here, looking down at the ocean rolling endlessly in from the horizon; here high above the beach road with its crawling traffic, its dotting of lights.”
When he turns his back on the ocean, looks back at the land he returned to, Dix is just another man who, a short time ago, had a purpose and the respect that came with it. (Hughes offers a contrast here in Brub, who has turned his back on family riches to work and build a life. But he seems a happily adjusted exception.) As in William Wyler’s film The Best Years of Our Lives, which came out one year before this novel, showed, it’s not just crazy men who came back to a feeling of being lost, lost amid the postwar prosperity of America, back to a life whose goals and aims seem so paltry next to the wartime missions they have returned from. A mere two years after this country’s greatest triumph, Hughes, like Wyler, foresaw American loneliness as an internal exile. The horror of Dix Steele is just how much he is alienated from — and how close that alienation comes to what we still call masculinity.
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