Thursday, January 11, 2018

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

"The criminal doesn't escape," Dix said wryly.

Brub said, "I won't say that.  Although I honestly don't think he ever does escape.  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."

Dix Steele (I know) is bumming around Los Angeles when he runs into an old friend, Brub Nicolai (I know).  Brub and Dix are old pals from their stint in Europe during the Second World War, and they relish catching up.  Dix is in town writing a novel and subletting from an old Princeton friend; Brub is a detective in Beverly Hills.  He gives Dix the inside scoop on the investigation into a recent rash of murders: young women, strangled.  There are few clues; the murderer has been careful.  But what he doesn't realize is his old buddy Dix is actually the strangler.

In a Lonely Place is a pretty traditional noir, though an exceptionally stylish and cerebral one.  Unlike Hammett or Chandler it finds the killer infinitely more interesting than the detective, who's dogged but limp.  Dix is right when he says that Brub has no imagination:

The obvious reach of his imagination was, "He's insane, of course."  It would never occur to him that any reason other than insanity could make a man a killer.  That's what all the dolts around town would be parroting: he's insane of course he's insane of course.  It took imagination to think of a man, sane as you or I, who killed.

But Brub is right that even when a murderer gets away with it, he's ultimately caught in his own "lonely place."  More than anything, the novel is about the poisonously antisocial masculinity that leads Dix to kill.  Hughes pointedly makes him a Princetonian and a serviceman, acculturated in male spaces and bitterly obsessive and controlled toward women.  Dix can't look at a woman without evaluating her appearance--perhaps the truest-seeming detail in the whole book--and we come to learn that he makes his first kill when a woman literally tells him "no."  His undoing comes when he falls for a neighbor, a would-be starlet named Laurel Gray (I know) whose fiery personality and unpredictability stoke his lust and his loathing at the same time.  Hughes understands just how blurred the lines between a man's love for a woman and his hate for her can be.

When Dix is finally caught, as of course he must be, it's two women, Laurel and Brub's wife Sylvia who rely on their suspicions.  Sylvia especially recognizes something amiss about Dix.  I couldn't help but think about the stories we've all heard recently amid the #metoo movement from women who have had to rely on their instincts to protect themselves from violence and harassment.  When something about a man seems off, those instincts can be self-preserving.  As determined as Brub is, it seems right that it's his wife whose imagination is well-honed enough to recognize who Dix really is.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

When I was growing up, every other dude was named Brub. And don't get me started on all the Dix.