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in a lonely place

10 april 2022

Coming to Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place (1947) with a vague memory of having seen the 1950 film once – and that was closer to 1950 than to today – I experienced something of a revelation. If you dislike spoilers, even of 70-odd-year-old stories, skip the rest of this piece.

The film In a Lonely Place stars Humphrey Bogart as the ambiguous Dix Steele. Dix fits the profile of a murderer and doesn't have a clear alibi for a recent killing. His new girlfriend Laurel (Gloria Grahame) isn't sure what to make of this. She wants to believe that Dix is innocent, but with some upsetting behavior, he doesn't make it easy for her. By the time Dix is proven innocent, their relationship is strained past bearing.

It's a good movie, but Hughes' source novel is even better and completely different. Dix Steele, on the page, is not just a murderer, but a serial killer with a transatlantic victim list. If the authorities have never caught up with him, it's because Dix has led the transient life of many a demobilized serviceman, bouncing around Europe and back to the U.S. There, unattached, he rattles down to Southern California and lives by bilking a faraway rich uncle – while staying in an expensive apartment that belongs to a college friend who seems to be in Rio and is never coming home.

Hughes' L.A. is a chilling, anonymous city where someone like Dix can strangle young women at night and, looking just like a million other average guys, never be noticed the next morning. The novel is told from Dix's point of view, and there is no doubt that he is the murderer – except that from time to time there's a discrepancy in the cops' case, and if you remember the film vaguely you can't help wondering if Dix will be exonerated.

But there's another difference. In the movie, Dix is a suspect early on; in the novel they don't pay him much attention till near the end. In both, Dix's best friend from the service is a police detective named Brub Nicolai. In the film Nicolai must actively investigate Dix while hoping against hope that he's wrong; in the novel, Nicolai has no reason to suspect Dix, and invites him casually along on the investigation for a while, inadvertently showing Dix how to keep murdering while eluding the cops.

In a Lonely Place is a thrilling novel. Hughes works her way into Dix's feverish desires, his need to dominate and destroy women. I don't know if the psychological portrait she draws entirely hangs together. She has Brub Nicolai propose that the serial killer is simply a killer by nature; but Dix seems to have been stung into killing by his relationship with a specific woman he knew in Britain, not long before the California killings. Wisely, though, Hughes doesn't attempt too much excavation of Dix Steele's backstory. Whether his violence is deep-seated or a recent vendetta comes to the same thing for her purposes: he is a predator who cannot stop himself.

Hughes' dialogue is hard-boiled but unshowy. The characters aren't simile machines and they don't go in for topical references or current vernacular. One almost senses her writing more for posterity, or at least for posterity as much as for the present, in a pared-down style that stands the test of time.

Hughes, Dorothy B. In a Lonely Place. 1947. New York: New York Review Books, 2017. PS 3515 .U268I5