This is the city. Late 1940s Los Angeles. The war has been won and the economy is booming, but something sinister is prowling the foggy streets of the city at night. Women are being murdered and their lifeless bodies abandoned in seemingly random locations. The police are unable to find a pattern or a motive. Panic and fear permeates the streets.
If this sounds like a standard noir plot from the likes of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett you would be right. The difference here is that this tale is written by the little known, but much regarded Dorothy B. Hughes. In a Lonely Place, written in 1947 and reissued here in the NYRB Classics series, is as entertaining as it is subversive. Hughes works within the noir genre to expose its own dark underbelly: the genre’s disturbing attitude towards its female characters.
Most of the novel is from the perspective of the killer, Dix Steele (a noir name if there ever was one). Recently back from the war and living off a stipend from a rich uncle, he wanders the city streets claiming he is a writer of detective fiction. Underneath this suave facade, he feels entitled to an easy life and is enraged by those he sees denying him, primarily women. There is Laurel Gray, the cynical aspiring actress who lives next door and Sylvia Nicolai, the wife of his best friend during the war. Sylvia is married to Dix’s old war buddy, who just happens to be a detective investigating the recent string of murders plaguing the city.
Hughes takes these classic noir characters (the femme fatale, the good girl, the detective, and the killer) and uses them to play with the readers expectations. The result is a novel grounded in, but not straightjacketed by, the genre. I won’t give any more of the details away. Just know that this is not a ‘standard’ noir tale in execution or resolution.
Do be warned though, it can take a bit of time to adjust to this excellent work. The prose can be dense and heated, the slang sometimes obtuse, and it is grounded in the mores of its time. That being said, this slim novel is well worth your limited reading time.