Sun 28 Feb 2010
DOROTHY B. HUGHES – In A Lonely Place. Duell Sloan and Pearce, hardcover, 1947. Paperback reprints include: Pocket #587, 1949; Bantam 1979, Carroll & Graf, 1984; Feminist Press, 2003.
Film: Columbia, 1950. Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Frank Lovejoy (Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai).
If you’ve seen the movie, which happens to be one of my favorites, know this: the book is completely different, but even better.
Set in post-war L.A., the story is told in the third person, entirely from the point of view of Dix Steele. Dix is one of the lost men — someone who thrived in uniform, in danger, but who is now adrift, pretending to be a writer but living mostly on remittances from a wealthy uncle.
When beautiful divorcee Laurel Gray comes into his life, he falls deeply in love and begins to heal, just a little. But Laurel begins to fear Dix, and she takes her concerns to Dix’s friend Brub Nicolai and his astute wife Sylvia. An old war chum of Dix’s, Brub is now an L.A. cop investigating a series of strangulation murders.
As a crime story, this book starts out chillingly and compellingly, and becomes more so with each passing page.
As a piece of social fiction, it paints a fascinating picture of post-war America, contrasting the disenchantment and isolation of some returning soldiers with the orderly, energetic, sociable world of recognizable “Greatest Generation” types like the Nicolai’s, who successfully fought a war and now want to build an orderly, peaceful world at home and also value having a good time — driving, dining, drinking and dancing.
The prose is Hemingway-esque in its spareness. The integrity of the POV is scrupulous.
This is one of the great American novels of the mid-20th century. If Hughes isn’t taught in colleges, she should be.