Although she was a popular writer in the 1940s and early 50s, few readers today - even avid ones - recognize the name Dorothy B. Hughes. Those who come across the name usually know it from three films adapted from Hughes’s novels - The Fallen Sparrow, Ride the Pink Horse, and In a Lonely Place. Fewer still have read any of her 14 novels, to say nothing of her critical biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Real Perry Mason. That was the position I found myself in recently, until talking with two people about the novel In a Lonely Place. Those friends mentioned that the 1950 Nicholas Ray film is very different from the novel, yet both versions, they assured me, are spectacular. As a huge fan of the movie, I had to investigate this for myself.
If you’re familiar with the film, you should understand two things: first, four of its main characters also appear in the book. While their fundamental roles in each format are basically the same, their behaviors and motivations vary, sometimes widely. We have Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell). While it’s fine to keep those actors in your mind while reading (It’s practically impossible not to), be prepared for some surprises.
After WWII, former Air Force pilot Dixon Steele is trying to adjust to civilian life in Los Angeles. He’s been there for six months, presumably working on a novel, but that’s just a cover. He’s really living off an allowance from his wealthy (but stingy) uncle and staying in the apartment of his old college friend Mel Terriss while Mel’s in Rio for several months. It’s clear from the novel’s opening paragraph that Dix is clearly out of his element:
It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face. There was something in it akin to flying; the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth, of being a part of the wildness of air. Something too of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind. He’d liked flying at night; he’d missed it after the war had crashed to a finish and dribbled to an end. It wasn’t the same flying a little private crate. He’d tried it; it was like returning to the stone ax after precision tools. He found nothing yet to take the place of flying wild.
Although his post-war life is aimless and unfocused, there’s a searching in Dix, a hunger for the taste of something he can no longer have because that taste has been removed by the closure of the war. Nothing can satisfy Dix, but he retains various hungers: food, clothes, and women. Early in the novel, we learn that a serial killer has been active in LA for several months. It’s not much of a stretch for the reader to make this connection, but Hughes focuses on the character of Dix more than the murders.
Dix realizes that he needs to ground himself in something - or someone - familiar. He remembers that his war buddy Brub Nicolai lives nearby and decides to look him up. The relief of finding a friendly face quickly erodes when Dix learns that Brub is now a policeman investigating the serial murders. A relationship that was once familiar and comfortable has now become threatening. Dix becomes even more isolated in the presence of Brub’s wife Sylvia, an attractive woman totally devoted to Brub. Although he doesn’t fit in with the Nicolais, Dix finds himself in their presence more and more until he meets an attractive woman who also lives in his apartment complex. Laurel Gray is bold, confident, and knows what she wants, but Dix fears that, like him, she’s got a past, perhaps one he can’t handle. But while they’re getting along, who needs to worry about the past? No one, except the man who can’t escape it.
Even on a purely surface level, In a Lonely Place is a superbly crafted novel that balances a compelling crime story with a powerful character study, all the while touching on post-war fears and anxieties. Dix’s obsessions are played out in cycles of exhilaration regarding food, clothes and sex. His sexual appetite is reflected in his almost constant search for good food. He hasn’t the money for a fine restaurant, so in frustration he settles for drive-in food. He often wears fine clothes, but they belong to Mel. But women are Dix’s greatest frustration. When your identity has been taken away by the arrival of peacetime, you have to create another. When the novel begins, Dix has already crafted this identity, but Hughes expertly takes the reader through the process of discovering Dix’s attempts to preserve and satisfy it.
There’s much to marvel at here: Hughes’s pacing and tension, her look at postwar masculinity and the anxieties associated with it, her subtle examination of LA culture, the empathy we feel for a murderer, and more. But perhaps Hughes’s greatest attribute is her sense of control. As you read In a Lonely Place, you’re aware that it’s a crime novel, but you also acknowledge that the focus is on character and how we react to it. We might loathe Dixon Steele, but damned if we don’t admire his ability to get himself out of tight situations. Maybe we haven’t murdered anyone, but haven’t we all tried to find just the right words to evade unpleasant situations? We may not be Dixon Steele and we certainly don’t approve of his behavior, but he’s not totally foreign to us. How Hughes manages that type of control without turning Dix into a monster or stereotype (or both) is astounding.
In a Lonely Place represents one of the few (and possibly only) times in my experience that a novel and a film are so vasty different, yet both succeed brilliantly. I encourage those of you who’ve seen the film (and those who haven’t) to pick up the novel and explore an exceptional novel from a master writer.
In a Lonely Place and another fine Hughes novel, The Expendable Man, are available in paperback from New York Review Books.