Monday, June 28, 2021

40. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

So from struggling to find them at all, I have no read 4 books by Dorothy Hughes in the last year or so.  In a Lonely Place has been sitting on my on-deck shelf for a long time, a bland NYRB reprint (redeemed by putting an excellently written by Megan Abbot afterward instead of a forward) which kept calling at me "when will the time be right for you to read me?".  Well maybe it would have been sooner if you weren't such an odd size and with a super boring ass and forgettable cover.  "It's not my fault fake highbrow readers will only approach genre fiction if it doesn't threaten them with appearing lower class in their hands."  Indeed, this is not your fault book and we should not judge you by your cover, so read you I finally shall.  And did.

Once again, we have a female crime author whose masterpiece is obscured and lost while people continue to freak out about big-name male authors.  I was really glad to read Abbott's analysis at the end, because I didn't fully appreciate how thoroughly Hughes twists the genre inside out, gender-wise.  Even without smarter analysis, this book is possibly one of best and probably earliest of the serial killer point of view sub-genres.  Serial killers are really not my jam at all.  I have found them played out even when Silence of the Lambs came out and now they are as ubiquitous as zombies.  They always seem like an excuse for a male author to express "creative" violence against women.  Simply because of the subject matter, I am not inclined to love this book.  But I have to recognize its craft.  It also feels like it establishes several cliches that become commonplace in noir and pulp fiction (and even later movies and books): the class resentment motivation, the killer who is friends with the detective, the killer's perspective.  As Abbott states, this book came out before Jim Thompson (who is today almost a household name among crime readers with movies getting made).

One of the great things of this book is that it is super dark but never nasty or titillating.  All the real violence takes place off stage, yet their impact is no less minimized.  Likewise, the unreliable narrator (because of their own insanity) is handled so deftly that there is very little fake mystery for the reader.  Hughes doesn't need to play those jump scare fake-out games with us as she is so deep in his sad, twisted head that you get enough horror from beginning to understand his thinking.  The natural social concerns of anybody with status (worrying about how you look, worrying about what the neighbours may think, etc.) get all mixed up with Dix Steele's paranoia so that he is both constantly obsessing about what evidence he may have left behind as well as whether or not to park his car in the street or in his garage (which is a minor pain in the ass, but lets him enter his apartment via the alley unseen).  The latter worry is not about avoiding getting caught but because he doesn't want the neighbours to think he is someone who stays out late.  Likewise, he is also super angry with anybody who is working class. Hates the gardener and thinks he will punch him if he says hello again, hates the "slattern" who cleans up his apartment.  It's almost funny at times.

One element this book has that didn't get copied is strong female characters who end up saving the day without any fake suspense generating risk to them.  The ending doesn't remove any of the darkness and yet left me satisfying.  It is not explicit, but you really feel for the soldiers who come back from a world war to a complex world with their status often back to zero.  In a Lonely Place really gives you the feeling of how quickly and artificially post-war America imposed a vision of suburban ease on itself.  The violence coming out of Dix Steele in some ways prefigures the violence of Vietnam and the 60s yet to come.  I tease NYRB for their design above, but I commend them for reprinting this book.  

This is no masterpiece of a cover
but at least it has something going on!

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