Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: In a Lonely Place, Dorothy B. Hughes

The Feminist Press, 2003,ISBN 1-55861-455-9, 250 pages. In A lonely Place was originally published in 1947.

Dickson (Dix) Steele thinks that he got a raw deal in life. His Uncle Fergus makes him work for every dime, while the "rich stinkers" don't have to lift a finger to live the high life. During his two years a Princeton, Dix learns he can get money without working for it by toadying up to wealthy classmates but that just exacerbates his resentment toward anyone better off than him. They don't deserve it, he does.

When WWII starts, Dix joins the Army Air Corps as a pilot. There he never feels more in control, as good about his life. He has money and status. He also feels the "power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky."

When the war ends, Dix convinces his uncle to support him for a year in Los Angeles while he writes a detective novel. Dix meets Mel Terriss, one of the "rich stinkers" from Princeton and soon after moves into his apartment, drives his car, and uses his charge accounts while Mel is in Rio.

In a moment of weakness, Dix calls a buddy from the service, Brub, now a homicide detective, who is married to an all too perceptive Sylvia. He also meets and falls for Laurel Gray, a beautiful and tough woman who isn't a pushover for Dix's charm.

While Dix isn't actually writing a detective novel, he is a serial rapist and murderer, haunting the headlines as "The Strangler." Dix's inflated sense of his own superiority leads him to think he is too clever to be caught, that he has his tracks covered.

This is a book about a rapist and serial killer that contains no violence and graphic language. The excellent afterword by Lisa Maria Hogeland makes several interesting points. First, although written in the third person, we see the story unfold entirely from Dix's viewpoint. We see what he sees, hear what he hears. Second, and unusual for the time the book was written, the female victims are not shown as contributing to their murder. Third, Dix's motives are not fully explained. His upbringing and relationship to his mother are not made a cause for his actions.

Hughes was a wonderful writer. There is nothing overdone with her dialog and descriptions. Dix moving through the night, stalking his victims, is suspenseful and chilling but written quietly and creating an atmosphere that makes the reader feel the night and fog about them as they read.

If you decide to read In a Lonely Place I recommend the edition from The Feminist Press. There is in interesting preface discussing the history of women writing pulp fiction and Hogeland's analysis of the book from a feminist viewpoint is even more interesting.

And I'd like to plug Megan Abbott's anthology, A Hell of a Woman: an Anthology of Female Noir from Busted Flush Press, for bringing this book to my attention. At the end of the anthology there is an appendix where "an array of authors, booksellers, critics and film aficionados pay homage to favorite noir writers, characters and performers." Two essays discussing Hughes prompted me to buy In a Lonely Place and Ride the Pink Horse.