In A Lonely Place: Dorothy B. Hughes

I’ve been wanting to read Dorothy B. Hughes noir novel IN A LONELY PLACE (1947) since I first saw it mentioned earlier this year and I can’t remember where. IN A LONELY PLACE is dark, atmospheric read that’s a cross between psychological suspense and hardboiled noir. It’s set in post-WWII California and tells the story of an elusive serial killer.  The story opens with: “It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face.” 

Book Cover for In A lonely place by Dorothy B. Hughes is a vintage cover And so the terror begins or continues. Set in 1940’s California, several women have been found murdered in and around the area of Santa Monica. The police have no clues, leads or suspects. The pattern and manner of death is the same. The story opens with the killer, under the cover of murky darkness, following his victim as she departs from her bus after working the late shift. And so it goes…

Dickson “Dix” Steele arrives in Santa Monica and re-establishes his friendship with his old college friend, Brub Nicolai. Both men enlisted with the Air Corps overseas and haven’t seen each other in two years. Brub is now a police officer with the Beverly Hills Homicide department and married to Sylvia while Dix is a drifter and said to be “restless.” As Brub investigates the murders, he unwittingly finds himself playing the game of “the hunter and the hunted.”

Much of the story’s focus isn’t really on the murders which was sort of surprising and refreshing. Dorothy B. Hughes decided to focus on the mindset of a man beset with demons. She really gets inside the psyche of what drives someone to kill. Exploring the underlying emotions of fear, love, abandonment and loneliness. On the extreme end: rage and hatred. There’s mention of class, money and status.

Dix is completely shocked to find his old friend is a police officer now. Reconnecting with an “old friend” is risky but he thinks he can handle it and finds it all a game. Dix makes a lot of risky moves but he’s good at rationalizing his actions.

The tone is dark with descriptions of fog meaning different things like obscurity or confusion. There’s plenty more word play with the use of light and dark. Evil vs. good is somewhat implied. As for the murder investigation, the suspect is a man with an internal rage against women. Much of it stems from the past and the origin of that rage stems from a past relationship that somehow transforms into one of revenge. The suspect is someone who wears a mask in order for him to fit in and be normal. But does his act really fool anybody? We only have one pov in here which only serves to create uncertainty and some well placed tension.

Unlike other mysteries, the killer’s identity isn’t a secret. Suspicion was pointedly centered. The tension and suspense lie with how the suspect will be caught if at all. Much of the violence is implied. This story is psychological because the killer is playing the game of who will catch me as he takes calculated risks. He prides himself on hiding in plain sight and being “ordinary. ” He sees himself as invisible while other people, his best friend’s wife, Sylvia, seem to see right through him and that bothers him a great deal.

I enjoyed this story and can say that it has held up well. The pace is purposely slow but not too slow. The author took the time to create a sinister feel and tone. I found myself looking forward to details of the investigation and curious to know how this would all play out. The supporting characters were fleshed out well enough for the story’s purpose. Criticism: I thought the introspection was overly long in some sections of the story.

The serial killer story continues to be a well-worn trope in the mystery genre. Too many novels featuring this trope lack substance. IN A LONELY PLACE is a cut above the rest in how the premise didn’t concentrate on violent acts. The author focused on the killer’s deception in society and how it took a couple of smart women to catch him.

The narrative is told in third person. The length of the novel is 250 printed pages. This was a good story and I’m glad I read it.  As for the 1950 film starring Humphrey Bogart as Dix Steele, it seems to be more popular than the book. Haven’t seen the movie but I’m told it’s much different from the book. Source: bought Edited to add some clarity on 12/27/13.

15 thoughts on “In A Lonely Place: Dorothy B. Hughes

  1. Keishon – That’s the key (at least for me) to a crime novel, especially if it has a serial-killer theme. It has to have some real substance. It’s got to convince me of why such a person is the way s/he is, and I have to care what happens. It sounds too as though this one is as much psychological as anything else and for me, that’s a plus too. Thanks.

  2. I remember liking the movie a lot, when I was on my Humphrey Bogart kick. Sounds like the book is worth reading.

  3. The killer’s best friend is a police officer who is investigating the murders committed by him? Keishon, now that’s an interesting premise for a crime novel. I’ll look up this novel. Thanks for the review.

  4. I have been wanting to read some mysteries by Hughes for a while also. Don’t know why I keep putting them off. I don’t have this one but it sounds good. And your review is very good and in depth. I have The So Blue Marble, Ride The Pink Horse, and The Davidian Report.

  5. Keishon – great review and one which canes my effort. More psychological than graphic, I wonder if it would be written the same if it was penned 60 years later. I enjoyed it myself, but I’m not in a rush to read anything else by her. In truth I probably wouldn’t have read this anyway, if it hadn’t been a group read.

  6. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere: December 2013 | Past Offences

  7. Interesting – I love the film, but have never read the book. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the film that I can’t remember offhand quite how much it differs plot wise – but the book definitely sounds worth a read – thanks!

    • Hi Claire,

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve since thought more about Dorothy B. Hughes book and reread In A Lonely Place and would say that it is worth reading. She was really good at psychological suspense and I plan to read more of her books this year.

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