One book so easily leads to another. And sometimes you've just got to read books in tandem. I've started to read In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes and have read a very complementary essay about the novel in Books to Die For edited by John Connelly. It's a little bit of a dangerous area as I have already taken note of a few more books to look out for when I am done. My edition of the book was reissued by Feminist Press (their Femmes Fatales series) and comes complete with an afterword and a list of works cited.
I'll save the afterword for later but I was very curious about the essay about In a Lonely Place that appears in Books to Die For. The book is a wonderful compendium of essays about "the world's greatest mystery novels", which are written by, yes, other mystery writers. The book is ordered chronologically (though some years have multiple entries and some years are skipped over) and is a most excellent reference volume and teaser for classic mystery novels. In a Lonely Place was published in 1947 and the essay is written by crime fiction novelist Megan Abbott.
I'm sure the novel's afterword will shed more light on the workings of the novel, but the essay is a great introduction to the work, which Abbott notes may be "the most influential novel you've never read. A troubling, razor-sharp exemplar of mid-century noir."
"What we see in In a Lonely Place, then, is a cunning, remarkably prescient analysis of a postwar sexual panic that was still under way. Perhaps no more than 1947, the year of the novel's publication, reflects that panic: it was the year of the Black Dahlia murder, which tore the roof off a Los Angeles thick with sexual violence, missing women, unsolved crimes, and general mayhem."
"In a Lonely Place uses the conceit of a serial killer (although hardly a conceit yet) to highlight aspects of the culture that have little to do with serial pathology and everything to do with the gender and sexual tension of postwar America, and the hard-boiled genre that reflects those tensions."
A crime novel that is more than just a crime novel. I know lots of people consider mysteries and crime fiction their 'guilty pleasure' and often the genre is dismissed as being 'just genre fiction', but I think more often than not there is far more at play in a crime story than meets the eye. It is not just entertainment, or pulp fiction, but it is a real look into how any society works. And of course it is an insight into the workings of the mind, too.
So, today a teaser from Dorothy B.Hughes's In a Lonely Place. It has a wonderful post-WWII setting in foggy L.A. The story is told from the perspective of the killer, and the reader knows from the start whose mind we are entering. So far what I know about Dix Steele is that he is a not unattractive man who was a pilot during the war, so he will surely exude a certain charm. He is living in a friend's apartment and relies on a wealthy relative for his source of income. He watches women. He notices. And of course, think he has already done more, but it is only alluded to. I appreciate a crime writer who has a subtle touch and Hughes seems to be quite descriptive yet in an understated way.
And I think Dix likes to play cat and mouse games. Maybe he is the type who keeps friends close but enemies even closer. In this case, his friend is also a policeman.
"He walked on up he Incline, undisturbed when a car heading downwards splashed light on him. He wouldn't move from Terriss' flat. He was satisfied there. There was something amusing about Brub Nicolai being able to lay his hands on him whenever he wished. Amusing and more exciting than anything that had happened in a long time. The hunter and the hunted arm in arm. The hunt sweetened by danger. At the top of the Incline he looked down at the houses and the sand and the sea. But they were all helpless now, lost in the fog."
A little scary in a delicious sort of way, if you know what I mean. Apparently Jim Thompson was influenced by Hughes's novel. I think his The Killer Inside Me, however, is not at all understated. If Hughes leads to Thompson, I'd like to give his book (or maybe one of his others) a go. And then since we're talking California, post-WWII and crime novels, I might also give James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia a go, as I have it on my bookshelves somewhere (in keeping with the noir, crime, California theme). Looking at Ellroy's oeuvre of work I had no idea he had written so much so there might be a new avenue of work to explore. See how one book almost always leads to another?