Books on GIF #52 — 'In a Lonely Place' by Dorothy B. Hughes
|Books on GIF||Aug 20, 2017|
This Sunday's book is 'In a Lonely Place' by Dorothy B. Hughes
I knew absolutely nothing about 'In a Lonely Place' when I picked it up off the top of my bedside pile. What serendipity! It's excellent! One of the best book's I've read so far this year, right up there with 'The Moor's Account' by Laila Lalami. I acquired it through the book-of-the-month service from The New York Review of Books, which has published such other gems as 'The Dud Avocado' by Elaine Dundy, 'The Door' by Magda Szabo and 'Our Spoons Came From Woolworths' by Barbara Comyns. Given the title, I thought the book would be depressing and about love or something. Instead, it's a noir thriller about:
The book opens on a foggy night in Los Angeles. Out for a walk, Dix Steele sees a woman get off a bus at a nearby bus stop. He decides to follow her. She notices, and speeds up. He starts to close in. A car passes; its lights shine on him. The woman escapes. Thwarted, he goes to a bar, where he decides to drop in at an old war buddy's home before heading back to his place. But he doesn't go straight home after visiting his friend.... The following day, he opens the newspaper and reads: 'The strangler' has struck again!
You figure out early on that Dix is the strangler so that's not giving anything away. 'In a Lonely Place' delves into his life, which has been a lonely place he got back from World War II. Dix was a fighter pilot back then. Now, he's aimless and reliant on a monthly check from Uncle Fergus. Through his rich uncle, he was able to attend Princeton. But he never fit in with the moneyed types there, himself not coming from much. His resentment festered. So did his misogyny. His interior mind is full of these feelings, combined with rage, paranoia, despair and, of course, loneliness. But on the outside, he's seems perfectly normal. He shaves his face, like every other guy. He goes to the deli, and orders a sandwich and coffee like you or me. He's able to attend dinner parties and meet people without the slightest hint of danger. (At least initially.) For example, he was totally fine when he met Laurel Gray, his beautiful neighbor, and asked her to dinner. (For a quick aside, here's a shot from the movie version of 'In a Lonely Place,' with Humphrey Bogart seemingly miscast* as Dix and Gloria Grahame as Laurel.)
Dix falls in love, seeing Laurel as his salvation. He becomes fixated on her, and it leads to his undoing. I'm not going to spoil it here, but the book has an intense and fantastic ending that upends the noir tropes where women are the downfall of men. (When you read this book, stick around for the great afterword by Megan Abbott that delves into these issues.) The scenes I really enjoyed were the ones where Dix hangs out with his war buddy Brub (yes, Brub), who's now a homicide detective investigating the strangler murders. It was thrilling to be inside Dix's mind as he probed Brub about the case, under the ruse that it was research for a book he was writing, to see if the police were onto him, and to see how careful he was to not give himself away. He was a cool customer. It reminded me of Mr. Orange from 'Reservoir Dogs,' and that scene where he gives himself a pep talk about how being 'super cool' is why the gangsters didn't suspect he was an undercover cop.
But the thing I found the most interesting about this book was how it humanized the killer. It didn't make him likable or sympathetic, rather it showed just how normal evil can be. Dix is a serial killer without remorse, and in that sense he's a monster. But he doesn't hear voices in his head, dogs don't give him orders to kill, he's not part of a cult and he doesn't even wear a mask. He's just a regular guy, going through the motions of daily life, who does terrible things. He could be any of us. And that, I thought, was really chilling. If there's still room on your summer reading list, and if you're looking for a thrilling page-turner, pick up 'In a Lonely Place.' I highly recommend it.
'In a Lonely Place,' by Dorothy B. Hughes was originally published in 1947. It was brought back into print by the New York Review of Books in 2017. 198 pages.
What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'A Gentleman in Moscow' by Amor Towles, 'Avid Reader' by Robert Gottleib and 'The Violins of Saint-Jacques' by Patrick Leigh Fermor, among others.
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Thanks for reading!*
* I haven't seen the movie version, but when I read this book it didn't make me think of Bogart.