I first read Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place almost a decade ago on Kindle and recall being impressed. Thus, Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 reading project and this lovely NYRB edition was the perfect excuse to read a novel that was both familiar and new at the same time. My verdict – It’s absolutely terrific, the reread as good as the first time. As an aside, her novel The Expendable Man, also published by NYRB Classics, is also excellent, a cleverly written tale that questions the reader’s prejudices.

In a Lonely Place is an elegantly written, stylish noir; a brilliantly rendered tale of evil, post-war desolation, paranoia and dubious morals, the almost pitch-black NYRB cover is perfect for a novel that has darkness at its core.

The novel opens with our protagonist Dix Steele staring out to sea during the evening when all colour has been drained from the sky and fog has descended over the shore like a misty veil.

It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face there was something in it akin to flying; the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth, of being a part of the wildness of air. Something too of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind. He’d liked flying at night; he’d missed it after the war had crashed to a finish and dribbled to an end. It wasn’t the same flying a little private crate. He’d tried it; it was like returning to the stone ax after precision tools. He had found nothing yet to take the place of flying wild.

In the milieu of post-war Los Angeles, Dix misses those days of being a pilot, “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky.”

With the thick fog unfurling over the beach, Dix’s shadowy motives immediately become clear when he begins to follow a woman who has just alighted from a bus. It’s a lonely stretch of land, the girl is afraid and luckily manages to evade him (“Anger beat him like a drum”), but from the outset, we gauge Dix to be a killer, the “strangler” who has unleashed terror on unsuspecting, solitary women in the city. Immediately afterward, Dix overhears the name “Brub” and is reminded of his old friend Brub Nicolai with whom he had lost contact for several years. On learning that Brub is now based in Santa Monica, Dix decides to visit him. Brub as it turns out is a cop with the LAPD and ironically assigned to the very case of ferreting out “the strangler”, a case that seems to have completely beaten him. 

Dix is invigorated by this feeling of danger; arrogantly confident that there’s no way Brub will remotely suspect him of those heinous crimes. Under the pretext that he is writing a crime novel, Dix unwittingly becomes Brub’s confidante, and he revels in a role that heightens his sense of power, of always being one step ahead of the law; it’s from this point on that we see the gradual buildup of tension between Brub and Dix in the way their conversations pan out; the hunter seemingly clueless about the hunted being none other than his friend, while the hunted enjoys the thrill of the chase.

“A murderer is a murderer as…an actor is an actor. He can stop acting professionally but he’s still an actor. He acts. Or an artist. If he never picks up another brush, he will still see and think and react as an artist.”

That’s the basic kernel of the plot, and as the book progresses, this transforms into a psychological novel as Baker takes us deep into the twisted mind of Dix Steele, gradually laying bare his troubled thoughts, erratic perceptions, and a deluded view of himself.

The characterization in In a Lonely Place is terrific, and it’s the depiction of the two women that I vividly remembered during this reread even when all other details seemed hazy – the silvery, sinuous Sylvia Nicolai, Brub’s wife, and the fiery, sensual Laurel Gray, Dix’s love interest (“He knew beauty and the intensity of a dream and he was meshed in a womb he called happiness”). The two make up a striking combination of “fire and ice” – the earthy, volatile Laurel paired with the classy, sophisticated Sylvia, both women perceiving that all is not necessarily right with Dix. Dix, meanwhile, is enamoured by both women in different ways, but as the novel progresses, his resentment towards them amplifies led by the fear that they are out to get him.

But with a title that encapsulates its protagonist’s alienation, In a Lonely Place, ultimately, is all about Dix Steele, anti-hero and the epitome of evil; a parasite aspiring for moolah and the good life, bitter because he lacks both, choosing therefore to live off the wealth and lavish lifestyle of others.

He was there for a long time. Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea. Lost in a lonely place. And the red knots tightened in his brain.

Violence, paranoia, the banality of evil, and the emptiness of post-war life are some of the themes that form the essence of In a Lonely Place. One of the reasons that fuel Dix’s belief that the law won’t catch up with him is his ordinariness; he looks like a normal man who hardly stands out in a crowd, a man like all others. But more importantly, Dix is utterly lost. Always attracted to the rich, cool crowd, Dix laments his limited means and the rigidity of his uncle Fergus who is a stickler for hard work much to Dix’s chagrin and growing resentment. War, therefore, is the only period that offers Dix the chance to truly excel as a pilot, a time when class differences and wealth divide are relegated to the sidelines in a common cause towards fighting the enemy. But once those war days are over, Dix is back to square one with hardly any money or prospects and ruled once again by the iron fist of Uncle Fergus.

In a Lonely Place sizzles with a wonderful blend of mood and atmosphere. The thick LA fog, “the gauzy veils” that descend over the city, like a curtain in a theatre, is a character in its own right, a sharp contrast to the idyllic LA world of beaches and eucalyptus groves, as menacing as Dix’s persona. One gets the impression that the fog is Dix’s only ally assisting him in his crimes, in a world where he feels increasingly isolated.  

Through a vantage point that is largely Dix’s, Hughes splendidly unlocks the door to his unstable mind, allowing the reader to see a distorted world through his eyes; the effect being that we are both repelled and fascinated by him at the same time. The way a feeling of mounting dread and unease pervades the novel is also masterfully done with the result that some of the anxiety that Dix begins to experience begins to rub off on the reader too, even if rationally we acknowledge that Dix deserves his comeuppance.

Hughes’s piercing gaze and sharp writing style elevates the novel; the prose has a unique rhythm while the deliciously edgy, hardboiled, noirish tone lends the novel much character. It’s a tale laced with understated tension, an uncomfortable reminder that evil can exist right under your eye, where you least expect it.

In a Lonely Place, then, is an intense, suspenseful tale, superbly crafted in the way it is told through a killer’s perspective with a vivid sense of place that encapsulates the dissonance between warm, ordinary days and murky, terrifying nights where danger lurks just around the corner. Highly recommended!


6 thoughts on “In a Lonely Place – Dorothy B. Hughes

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