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3/11/14

My Month of Crime Fiction: In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes


http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-kkgmL8UTyx4/Tn6pmZRXqSI/AAAAAAAACA8/Z_EMS98HTsY/s1600/in+a+lonely+place+book.jpgIn a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes

Allow me to introduce you to In a Lonely Place- it's chilling, it's creepy, it messes with your head, and it is FANTASTIC.

My copy of this novel was published by The Feminist Press as part of a series called "Femme Fatales: Women Write Pulp," in an effort to bring back mid-century classic pulp stories written by women, including noir. Like a parallel effort in the realm of mid-19th century American sentimental fiction, this series reintroduces us to the rich and varied world of crime/noir fiction that wasn't just hard-boiled male detectives pawing bad girls with too much lipstick while hunting down murderers and tossing them to the cops. No, noir was much more than that: it included many female writers, like Hughes, Highsmith, and Sayers, who explored the 20th-century American psyche and the hidden depths of many so-called "ordinary" people. Why did some people become killers? What kind of figurative masks did they wear to pass unnoticed, permitting them to murder while also moving about in cultured society?

Inevitably, In a Lonely Place took me back to that unfortunate time when I read Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. I say "unfortunate" because it's really the one book I wish I could unread. (It was assigned as part of my senior seminar in college, but I just couldn't finish it). If you've subjected yourself to this book, you'll remember the painfully descriptive and detailed explanations on the part of the narrator concerning the horrifying and brutal things he did to his female prey. And all the while, he hobnobbed with fellow rich people and acted like any normal late-20th century single man. It was even harder to read American Psycho because it was narrated in the first-person- inhabiting the mind of a sadistic psycho-killer was just too much. But mostly it was too graphic for me.

In a Lonely Place, however, has all of the self-deluded-psycho-killer freakishness you'll find in American Psycho without all the details. Actually, with almost no details of the rapes and murders at all. Hughes, instead, focuses on Dix Steele's thoughts, through which the novel is channeled. We only see the world through Steele's eyes, which heightens the suspense and forces us as readers to think like a detective, analyzing each of Steele's thoughts and suspicions and weighing them against the words and actions of the other characters. When, for instance, Steele's new girlfriend Laurel Gray, looks at him "funny," we wonder if she knows. In fact, the main female characters are the first to figure out that Steele is the "Strangler" responsible for the rash of murders in L.A. that year, as if they are attuned to what's happening to others of their sex (almost an "instinctive" thing). The men, meanwhile- the cops, detectives, even Steele- are narrow-minded and unable to look past surfaces to make the necessary connections. That we only slowly understand that Steele has taken over another man's life (apartment, car, clothes) because...you know...he offed the guy, is yet another reason why this book makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Hughes has offered us a fascinating and frightening look into the post-WWII psyche, inviting us to question what could happen to a young American man when he comes home from one of the most bloody and brutal wars in modern history and attempts to fit back into "normal" society. Did the war encourage the violent tendencies in Steele that might have lain dormant otherwise? Or would he have become a killer anyway? I intend to read more Hughes in the future, and I highly recommend In a Lonely Place. It's so worth it.

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