I have a weakness for older books with cover blurbs that make promises that I know will have a hard time living up to today’s expectations. Back in May, I read Helen MacInnes’ Assignment in Brittany, because it was advertised as a “haunting novel of romance and suspense.” I was equally drawn to Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place, because my edition has a quote from the New York Times Book Review: “If you wake up in the night screaming with terror, don’t say we didn’t warn you.” How can you possibly resist this?
Dorothy B. Hughes published her first volume of poetry in 1931. Over the next 7 years, she published 11 novels, and then went on to review mystery fiction. She was the Grandmaster for the Mystery Writers of America in 1978 and received the organization’s Grand Master Award in recognition of her life’s work in fiction and criticism that same year. In the little bit of online research I did, she is frequently listed alongside such well-known writers as Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Samuel Hammett. Based on my reading of In a Lonely Place, she fully deserves to be on that list, and it is a shame that she is not more widely known. While I did not wake up “screaming with terror” while reading, the suspense and the darkness that is developed in the story had me in their grip.
The lead character in this story is Dix Steele, a war veteran who has moved from Princeton to Los Angeles in order to write a book. He is comfortably settled in an apartment belonging to Mel Terriss, a former classmate away on business. While out eating one night, Dix decides to become reacquainted with his friend Brub Nicolai, who is now married and an LAPD detective, working on a string of murders in the neighborhood. At almost the same time, Dix meets Laurel Gray, an aspiring actress who lives upstairs from him, and begins an affair with her. But things start to go downhill quickly: Laurel seems to lose interest in him, money is tight, and Brub’s wife Sylvia starts to show her disapproval. Soon, Dix tries desperately to hold it all together. But he doesn’t succeed for long.
The setup of the story seems rather ordinary. But before Chapter 1 was over, I already knew that something was off.
“Dix smiled, a small smile. Brub wouldn’t know why; Brub had been his big brother, but he hadn’t known everything there was to know. Some things a man kept secret. It was amusing to keep some things secret.”
My uncertainty only grew as I read on.
“The car had followed its lead to the apartment; he hadn’t intended to come back here yet. He parked at the curb; he’d have to go out to eat. Later.
He didn’t have to give up normal living; that had been his one mistake. Brub and Sylvia proved it. He could be with them and be himself and not give away any secrets. His nerves were steady, his eyes level. It was time to gather friends again. Someone besides Brub and Sylvia. He couldn’t be constantly at their home. They might start wondering. Sometimes Sylvia’s eyes were disturbing, there were so wise. As if she could see under the covering of a man. Ridiculous, of course. You didn’t ever have to give yourself away. Not if you were smart.”
It turns out that this is no ordinary “whodunit” mystery, and my initial interest in the murders quickly changed into something else. The focus is solely on Dix, his thoughts, and his actions. The story is told in a third-person limited view: I knew exactly what was going on in Dix’ head, but only got a limited idea of what others were thinking. There were just enough vague hints of other, conflicting viewpoints to make me question what was going on with Dix. Exactly how “off” is he really? Why is he constantly and meticulously analyzing every person and every situation? Why has he such trouble sleeping? And what is the deal with Mel Terriss?
This story is much more about the psychological aspect of a possible murderer than the murders themselves. And Hughes is sly! She let me know right away that I should question Dix and his actions, but then she let my unease grow and grow and grow. Dix likes to play a bit with his friend and detective Brub, taking full advantage of this connection to get insider information into the police investigation and to deflect suspicion. But that is nothing compared to how Hughes toyed with me. Dix unraveled at just the right speed, and Hughes dropped just the right number and kind of hints to firmly pull me into her story. The pacing of this story is exceptionally well done.
As I am writing this review, I keep thinking more and more about the two main female characters: Sylvia Nicolai and Laurel Gray. While Sylvia holds the more traditional role of wife, Laurel is the femme fatale, whom Dix considers to be the perfect woman for him. She is strong, she “has been around,” she knows what she wants, and she’s not afraid to take it. Dix doesn’t seem to understand that there is a tragic side to Laurel, who is entirely dependent on her ex-husband. So maybe it is not surprising that at the same time as Dix relishes their relationship, she does add to his falling apart. When Laurel tells him it’s none of his business where she spent the night, he has a hard time controlling himself.
“He didn’t speak. At that moment, he couldn’t trust himself to speak. He couldn’t trust himself to look at her, at her insolent length, her stubborn mouth. It was his business. She was his woman; she belonged to him. He waited for her to say more but only silence roiled about them. He knew better than to turn his eyes in her direction; when he did, he was walking toward her and he could feel the pain of his steeled fingers. There was no sound of his measured steps on the carpet. He was standing there over her before he knew. And his voice was one from fare away, from out of the fog. “Laurel,” it said. “Don’t’ say that, Laurel.”
Yet despite her importance to Dix, Laurel disappears almost entirely in the last third of the book. And into her place steps Sylvia, the detective’s wife with the “disturbing eyes.” The story ends in a fascinating showdown that is marked by several role reversals. Not only do hunter and hunted switch places, but so do husband and wife, and Laurel and Sylvia. That certainly adds a little extra to the story, and from what I have read about Hughes’ other stories, it underscores Hughes’ importance as a writer who explored themes that had, up until then, been largely ignored. (You can read more about that here.)
Others have also reviewed of In a Lonely Place:
- Jacqui (I love the “pink marshmallow” quote she picked)
- Caroline (who pitied Dix more than I did)
- The LA Review of Books (also discusses some of Hughes’ other works)
P.S.: I haven’t seen the film version of In a Lonely Place, but even so I am glad that it is in black and white because I cannot imagine my man Humphrey Bogart wearing this:
“He had dressed for deliberate effect, an eastern friend of the Nicolais, well off, the right background, even to ex-Air Corps. Gray flannel suit; an expensive tie, patterned in navy, maroon, and white; a white shirt; well-polished brown shoes, English shoes.”
I am no fashion expert, far from it, but gray, navy, and brown all in one? Was that done? Or—please help me—is that still done?