Friday 7 September 2018

Forgotten Book - In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place is a justly admired film noir starring Humphrey Bogart, but until this year I'd never come across the novel on which it is based, written by Dorothy B. Hughes, and first published in 1947. The book is quite different from the film in some crucial respects, but I must say that I really, really enjoyed it. It's compelling, very well-written, and just the right length for the material.

The story is told in the third person, but everything is seen through the eyes of Dickson (Dix) Steele, a former pilot who has not found the adjustment to peacetime easy. Hughes describes something that hadn't really struck me very powerfully before - how for some men, war service offered excitement, and a sense of achievement that was unavailable elsewhere. And she describes it so well that I was convinced by Dix and by his often irrational behaviour. He is a memorable character.

The setting is Los Angeles, and very well-evoked that city is too, with fogs worthy of Bleak House, and a strange mix of urban glitz and leisurely beach life. Dix is staying in the home of an absent rich friend, and renews a friendship with a former colleague in the military, only to find that Brub Nicolai has married, and become a policeman.

Given that it soon becomes clear that Dix is a serial strangler, this relationship offers both insight into the police investigation and huge risks. Matters are further complicated when Dix falls for a neighbour, a glamorous but erratic actress called Laurel. Hughes describes Dix's increasingly wild mood swings credibly and with occasional touches of cool wit. This is a very, very good book, and although similar ground has been covered many times since, the quality of Hughes' prose makes it memorable in its own right, and not just as a precursor to later books by Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, and countless others.

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