In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you were a single gal living in post-war Los Angeles you’d probably find Dix Steele absolutely dreamy. After all, he’s a big handsome fella who dresses well and likes to dine out in swell places. He was a fighter pilot in the war, and now he’s working on writing a mystery novel so he’s certainly leading a colorful and interesting life. Just one problem. About once a month he feels a compulsion to strangle a strange woman to death.
Oh, well. Nobody’s perfect, right?
We spend the entire book in Dix’s head starting with him on the prowl for his next victim on a foggy night in the hills, and then he visits his old war buddy Brub. Dix is such a cool customer that he doesn’t flinch when he learns that Brub is one of the police detectives working on the strangler murders, but Brub’s wife Sylvia seems a bit cool to him. As we follow Dix through this daily life we learn that he’s a man filled with anger and resentments as well as wild mood swings that intensify when he starts dating a beautiful neighbor lady.
I was only dimly aware of Dorothy B. Hughes until the recent re-release of this novel made a bunch of the crime writers I follow on social media start gushing about the book and film loosely based on it. That caught my attention, and I can see why they were excited about it. The main thing about it is that it seems way ahead of it’s a time in its depiction of the mindset of a serial killer.
Coincidentally, it also made a good companion piece to be reading while in the middle of watching Netflix’s new series Mindhunter, and Dix seems to exactly fit the pattern of a certain type of woman hating killer. And Dorothy Hughes was creating this character long before the psychology and terminology referring to them would become mainstream thanks to serial killers becoming a profitable true crime industry as well as a staple of thrillers in print and on screen.
Overall, it was a solid piece of work that I would have rated as a strong 3 stars, but then I read the afterword by Megan Abbott which made me think even more highly of it. Mighty Megan makes a lot of great points about how Hughes had tapped in a strain of misogyny that the genre often used, and that she then cleverly subverts it in places in ways that crime fiction hadn’t seen. That hadn’t occurred to me while reading, and it made me realize that there was another layer to the book that I hadn’t quite wrapped my arms around so I bumped it up to 4 stars.
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