February 2004

Sarah Weinman

mystery strumpet

An Unsung Heroine

In trying to legitimize crime fiction for both the literary and academic crowds, pulp writers of old are being critiqued in a manner unheard of back when these writers were in their prime. Now it’s not uncommon to find a crime fiction class on such books at your local university, academic treatises on various writers going into painstaking detail about their life and work, and untold essays by students plumbing the depths of these books --even when there’s not necessarily much depth to them at all. Still, what this focus has done is bring previously forgotten writers to the forefront. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett have been elevated to the literary canon for so many years that it’s hard to remember a time when they were still only “pulp” writers. But Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, and Charles Willeford have only recently merited scholarly study.

No doubt more writers from a bygone era will be studied in great detail, and thanks to the work of the Feminist Press, it’s a good bet that Dorothy B. Hughes will be the subject of many university essays to come. Late last year, the City University of New York-based publishing house released In A Lonely Place, Hughes’ eleventh novel, as one of the three launch titles for their “Femmes Fatales” program, an initiative to bring back female pulp writers into print. It was also the basis for the eponymous 1950 film noir classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. But if you’d seen the movie prior to reading the book, you’d be in for a shock. The movie took some serious liberties with the story in creating its lead character of Dix Steele, a man accused of a crime he did not commit. The Dix of Hughes’s novel, whose point of view is the only one the reader is privy to, is a very different animal indeed: one whose creation was far ahead of its time.

The storyline of In a Lonely Place is rather straightforward; young women are being murdered in Los Angeles at a fairly rapid clip. Even though there are alleged sightings of the killer, the police are at a loss to catch him. Only a few months earlier, war veteran Dixon Steele moved from back East to try his luck at writing a novel. He’s firmly ensconced in a plush apartment belonging to a former classmate conveniently out of the country for an extended period. He’s renewing his acquaintance with best buddy Brub Nicolai, an LAPD detective, and even making time for romance with his tart-tongued actress neighbor Laurel Gray. Everything seems to be going right for Dix -- so why do things feel so wrong? Not only is he not writing, but he’s feeling the pinch. Laurel starts to cool on him, and Brub’s wife Sylvia is more open in her disapproval. Things are closing in tighter and tighter until he gets his ultimate comeuppance in an ending that leaves him an utterly broken man.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Dix has a very strong connection to the murders, but Hughes wasn’t aiming to write a conventional whodunit. Instead, she chose a much bolder task, crafting a psychological thriller from the point of view of someone who is morally ambiguous to say the least. The reader may not learn Dix’s true connection until the very end, but by the time they do, Hughes has created an atmosphere of almost unbearable suspense. It uses a similar device that popped up in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and many books by many authors since, but Hughes trumped Thompson on two counts: first, In A Lonely Place, published in 1947, predated Thompson’s book by five years. Second and more importantly, Hughes is far more subtle at revealing the level of Dix’s depravity.

Thompson chose the first person point of view for his novel; the reader is launched immediately inside Sheriff Lou Ford’s head, learning of his sick impulses and misdeeds. Hughes, however, tells Dix’s story from the third person limited view; although we never fully know what other characters are thinking, there is at least some sense that there are other, more sharply conflicting viewpoints lurking just outside of Dix’s (and hence, our) periphery. Hughes also never states explicitly what Dix is doing vis a vis the killings; he takes walks at night and spots young women, but the details of their meetings are kept deliberately vague until the next morning’s headlines trumpet “STRANGLER STRIKES AGAIN.” Even though Dix is in deep denial about his actions, Hughes fashions her narrative and descriptions carefully to draw attention to what is, or what may be, going on. Early in the novel, Dix describes his apartment and how he got it:

He liked the place he had now; he’d been lucky about it. A fellow he’d known years ago, in college. Years, aeons ago. He hadn’t cared for Mel Terriss then; he’d cared even less for him on running into him that night last July. Terris was going to pouches; under his chin and eyes, in his belly. He had alcoholic eyes and there were smearing the blonde with Dix. He didn’t get an introduction. But he blatted waiting for it and Dix had found the flat he’d been waiting for. He was sick and tired of the second-rate hotel off Westlake Park. It smelled. Terris was telling everyone about being off to Rio for a year, a fat job to go with his fat head.

Not exactly kind words spoken about a man who allegedly was so generous to let Dix live in his flat while he’s gone. But Hughes intends the reader to take the bargain at face value -- at first. But as things start to unravel for Dix, the description changes markedly:

Dix shut the door with a thud. He crushed the card in his fist. Damn snoops. Why should they or anyone care what had happened to Mel Terriss? Stupid, sodden, alcoholic Mel. The work was better off without Mel Terrisses in it. …Let them prove, let them try to prove he didn’t have a secretary. He’d go through the bills and the ads. Send the harmless ones, the ones without purchases after July. He shouldn’t have used the charge accounts, but it was an easy way to do it. So easy.

Not only is he more agitated, but the cracks are showing in his story, one that had afforded him time to do what he needed to do. At the same time, his relationship with Laurel is on very shaky ground. When Dix first met her, she was stood up by a dinner date. He knows the kind of woman she is, and accepts that she’s “been around.” When they get together, he is happy, but even then, doubts creep in:

She could have called him if she’d been delayed. He tried to look at it reasonably. Honestly tried. She had a lot of friends, of course she did. A girl with her body and her strange, lovely face would have more friends than she could handle. He was a newcomer, a nobody in her life. After all, she hadn’t met him until yesterday. She couldn’t be expected to drop everyone else and devote herself to him alone. She didn’t know it was to be these two. Two that were one.

Dix keeps on rationalizing, but eventually, he can no longer do so, and reaches a breaking point:

He stood there until he was trembling with pity and rage. Then he fled, but his flight was a slow as flight in a dream, impeded by the deep sand and the blurring hands of the fog. He fled from the goodness of that home, and his hatred for Laurel throttled his brain. If she had come back to him, he would not be shut out, an outcast in a strange, cold world. He would have been safe in the bright warmth of her.

Dorothy Hughes paints a portrait of a man who fits many of the traits that are now commonly attributed to a sociopathic personality; Dix has an unusually strong hatred of women, he takes an extra beat to react to horrible news, and he often adopts feelings of love and friendship instead of truly feeling them. He also demonstrates additional traits befitting modern serial killers; he has an unhealthy interest in following the murders in the newspaper, and delights in asking Brub Nicolai questions about the investigation -- questions that Nicolai is all too happy to answer. By insinuating himself into the investigation, Dix manages to throw suspicion off him for the longest time.

But where Hughes turns the tables is in how she sets the table for Dix’s downfall. Laurel, after being a strongly visible femme fatale character for the first 2/3 of the book, disappears completely in the final portion. But offstage, she makes her growing suspicions about Dix abundantly clear, and cooks up a plan with the dark horse in the story: Brub’s wife Sylvia. Previously depicted as just another housewife -- primarily because that’s how Dix chooses to view her -- she shows surprising toughness and mettle, and is cool under fire in her final confrontation with Dix. At the close of In a Lonely Place, Dix is reduced to a crying mass, but Sylvia remains stalwart and strong. It’s a neat role reversal, made especially significant because of the time and circumstance of the novel’s publication. Instead of creating a dashed-off, throwaway pulp, Hughes offers a searing social commentary on the disintegration of personality, how a sociopathy is made, not born, and how a person is always ultimately responsible for his or her actions.

If it’s not evident from the write-up, when I first read In a Lonely Place, I was blown away, and commend the Feminist Press for reissuing this. Hughes didn’t just pre-date Jim Thompson, she also pre-dated Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, and other so-called Masters of Psychological Suspense or Noir. And her writing style stands up to the test of time; there are occasions where the prose is slightly clunky but overall, the book moves awfully fast and Hughes does a wonderful job in insinuating just what Dix is up to without ever quite spelling it out. In short, In a Lonely Place is an intelligent piece of fiction. Fortunately, another of her novels, Ride the Pink Horse (1946), is in-print, having been reissued in 2002 by Canongate. The Feminist Press plans to release yet another novel of hers this spring. Although I’m not completely sold on how “feminist” her books are -- the afterword written by Lisa Marie Hogeland tries too hard to push Hughes into the category while missing the point on a number of more important issues -- but if that’s the catch-phrase that leads to further reissues, so be it. Hughes herself would be a wonderful subject for a full-length biography. Born in 1904, she was a university graduate and did some post-graduate work as well before publishing her first volume of poetry in 1931. Fourteen novels followed over a span of twenty-three years before she abruptly ended her writing career to care for her mother and grandchildren. She kept her hand in mystery fiction as a reviewer and was the Grandmaster for the Mystery Writers of America in 1978, finally dying at the age of 89 in 1993. Though she’s a long way from forgotten, she has a ways to go to capturing a deserving place alongside the likes of Chandler and Hammett. And with the extra push of the Feminist Press reissues, I expect students will be studying Hughes’s work for hidden layers of meaning and depth.

Further reading:

Brief Biography of Dorothy B. Hughes: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/dbhughes.htm

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
The Feminist Press
ISBN: 1558614559
252 Pages

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Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
ISBN: 184195277X
256 pages