“He has to live with himself. He’s caught there in that lonely place. And when he sees he can’t get away—” Brub shrugged “Maybe suicide or the nut house—I don’t know. But I don’t think there’s any escape.”
Someone is killing women in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s someone like Dix Steele, a war veteran drifting around the city, claiming he’s writing a book. A man who views most other men with contempt and women with something worse.
Yes, maybe it’s someone very, very much like Dix…
It’s hard to see how In a Lonely Place could be improved upon. Reading it is like peering straight into the abyss. Regardless of his guilt in these murders, the depth of Dix’s misogyny and disconnect from other human beings is chilling. He walks around wearing the skin of a man, saying all the expected things, and feeling nothing. There is almost no violence portrayed in this book; everything happens in dark and secret places where the reader is not permitted to follow. What Dorothy B. Hughes so perfectly depicts is even more frightening: the inner thoughts of a man who hates women, yet is obsessed by them. We see his restless yearning for the night, when he can hide himself in darkness, and the casual cruelties and manipulations that fill his days. And then we see him do the most unexpected thing of all—fall in love.
As the story opens, Dix has just reconnected with his old service buddy Brub Nicolai, now an LAPD detective investigating the serial stranglings of young women. The normally aloof Dix cultivates the relationship, intrigued by the possibility of hearing inside information about the slayings. Ironically, all the time Brub spends trying to solve the murders leaves his wife Sylvia alone and vulnerable to the killer (maybe even more than they think), and Dix subtly stokes their anxieties.
Dix lit a cigarette and surveyed the room. Nice people, healthy and wealthy. Normal as you and me. Normal as Sylvia when she didn’t have the megrims. But you didn’t know what was beneath beach-tanned faces and simple expensive clothes. You didn’t ever know about thoughts. They were easily hidden. You didn’t have to give away what you were thinking. No one exchanging pleasantries now with Brub would know that the man’s mind was raw with murder. No one watching Sylvia replacing her lip rouge, smiling over the mirror of her bleached wooden compact, would know that fear was raveling her nerves. Even he, permitted as a friend to know that there was fear in her veins, didn’t know whether the fear was for Brub’s safety or her own. Or an atavistic fear of reasonless death.
Dix also becomes involved with his neighbor Laurel Gray, a seductive and strong-willed actress. They are two of a kind, he believes, “one recognizing the other.” He views these two women, Laurel and Sylvia, purely in terms of his own desires. Dix believes he’s in full control of their interactions. It never occurs to him that they could be smarter than he is, that a woman might be able to “burrow under words, under the way of a face and a smile for the actuality.”
In Laurel, Dix falls in love with a mirror image of himself. “I knew you before I ever saw you,” he tells her, but that isn’t quite true. What he knows is what he wants her to be. He spends the rest of their relationship waiting for her to conform to it. Dix constantly refers to them as “two become one.” This is standard romantic rhetoric, except that he really means it, and the “one” they are to become is Dix. He doesn’t see Laurel as a separate person, with a life of her own. Instead, he seeks to absorb her into his own existence, to make her a part of himself. He is initially attracted to Laurel because she’s a hustler like he is, a would-be star willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. Dix never realizes what a terrifying proposition a woman like himself could be.
The genius of this book is that it doesn’t matter whether Dix is the strangler or not. Simply watching him go through his daily life is frightening and fascinating enough. Though not as charming or clever as he thinks, he manages to grift just enough to get by. His cons can be effective in the short term, but as with any unreliable viewpoint character, there is an ironic pleasure in the contrast between what the reader sees and what Dix thinks he’s pulling off.
This existence seems empty and arid not only to the reader, but to Dix himself, who cannot help resenting the dullness of civilian life. Dix is intensely nostalgic for World War II, the time when he held the power of life and death in his hands, shooting down German planes alongside other men. The urgency of war meant that Colonel Steele could have any woman he wanted and leave her behind without repercussion. No, it was after the war when all the problems started for Dix. “That life was so real that there wasn’t any other life. Even when the war was over there was no realization of another life […] He had mistaken an interlude for life span.” His whole, strange life in Los Angeles is an effort to recapture that feeling of power and freedom.
Dix is interested to learn that Brub views their time at war differently.
“It isn’t pleasant,” he said. “It’s damned unpleasant. But it’s there, you can’t just close your eyes and pretend it isn’t. There are killers and they’ve got to be caught, they’ve got to be stopped. I don’t like killing. I saw too much of it, same as you did. I hated it then, the callous way we’d sit around and map out our plans to kill people. People who didn’t want to die any more than we wanted to die. And we’d come back afterwards and talk it over, checking over how many we’d got that night. As if we’d been killing ants, not men.” His eyes were intense. “I hate killers.”
The strangler is motivated by the same wartime emotions as Dix, the intermingling of lust and violence. Brub and Sylvia wonder why one of the victims would allow herself to be picked up at a bus stop by a stranger and apparently enjoy a cup of coffee with the man who was about to kill her. Dix understands. The strangler first frightens the woman, approaching her in the dark, then puts her at her ease. Why, this nice guy simply wants a date! The physical catharsis of feeling scared, then safe, overwhelms her. The frissons of fear and attraction thus become indistinguishable.
In a Lonely Place opens with Dix standing alone on a cliff, the sea wind in his face. The sting of the mist stimulates him. It is the closest he comes to contentment, to “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneliness in the sky.” Dix’s tragedy is that he is only happy in a lonely place. It is the world’s tragedy that he can’t stay there forever.
Reading Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place for the first time is like finding the long-lost final piece to an enormous puzzle. Within its Spanish bungalows, its eucalyptus-scented shadows, you feel as though you’ve discovered a delicious and dark secret, a tantalizing page-turner with sneakily subversive undercurrents. While only intermittently in print for much of the last half century, its influence on crime fiction is unsung yet inescapable. From Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson to Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Harris, nearly every “serial killer” tale of the last seventy years bears its imprint—both in terms of its sleek, relentless style and its claustrophobic “mind of the criminal” perspective. But its larger influence derives from Hughes’s uncanny grasp of the connection between violence and misogyny and an embattled masculinity. And its importance extends beyond form or genre and into cultural mythos: the birth of American noir.
The 1950 film version, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart, is one of the greatest films of all time and has little to do with the book. It is available on Bluray and DVD from Criterion and for streaming rental through various platforms.