Saturday, August 04, 2012

In A Lonely Place

This week we continue our Hardboiled Ladies of Noir sub-set of the Beach Noir Book Club. One thing that really stood out for me about this Dorothy B. Hughes novel was its similarity to a little something called The Talented Mr. Ripley.

At the midpoint of In A Lonely Place, I started to wonder if Patricia Highsmith had ever read it, because there were some startling similarities between Dix Steele and Tom Ripley. They were both orphans, raised by relatives (Ripley was raised by an aunt, Steele by an uncle) whom they despised; they were both lower-income types with a yen for the good life but no desire to work; and they both committed murder and stole the identities of men whose lives they would then go on to inhabit.

Looking at the publication date, it's entirely possible there was some influence there. Hughes' book came out in 1947, Highsmith's in 1955. I'm not the only one to wonder this (this blogger also notices some similarities between Dix and the protagonist of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me) but there's not a lot written about the relationship between these two books, not that I could find online, anyway. Still, I'm fairly convinced of it.

Let's break it down.

First, the class angle. They're both frustrated rich men with chips on their shoulders about their lower-middle-class upbringings. Dix is especially bitter about his, and despises his uncle for working his way through Princeton and then imagining that Dix should do the same: "Dickson could see him, one of those poor boobs, peasants, owning one dark ill-fitting suit and a pair of heavy-soled shoes, clumping to class, study and work, and nobody knew he was at Princeton but the other peasants... Dix hadn't wanted to be a Princeton man. Not that kind." 

Throughout the book, Dix displays some severely classist contempt for "the help." He refers repeatedly to the maid as a "charwoman," "slattern," and a "broom and mop harridan," and the gardener he calls a "yahoo." Dix looks down on these people while living in murdered frenemy Mel Terriss' joint under false pretenses, and the irony is totally lost on him.

I found this angle fascinating, both in itself -- what else is a murderer but someone with the most supreme sense of entitlement possible? -- and for its resemblance to Tom Ripley's character. They both feel they deserve something other than what life has given them and they are well within their rights to take it. Of course, Dix has the added element of raping and killing girls for fun.

It's interesting that Hughes makes no attempt to explain Dix's motivations. I imagine that, by showing us the supremely entitled man, she feels she has made her point. I'm on her side with this one: I always find the explanations for killers' behavior extremely banal and inevitably a letdown, so I didn't mind this lack of explicit exposition. I just enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game Dix played with Brub, and the wonderful contrast between Dix's self-perception and that of everyone else around him. I've always thought the idea that you were mad and everyone could tell it but you was one of the creepiest concepts there is. Imagine, he's going through the motions the whole time thinking he's getting away with it and meanwhile everyone around him is like, "Holy shit, check out the crazy guy!" I don't know, that's just a secret fear of mine -- to go mad and not know it while everyone else is watching and clucking their tongues... it's a classic horror trope and it apparently works in suspense novels, too (and why not? the line between the two genres is fine and dark, sometimes invisible under the cover of night....)

Other things I liked about the book: good menacing sea-metaphors, like "Fear was the fog, creeping about winding its tendrils about you, seeping into your pores and flesh and bones" and "Sand was an evil and penetrating thing... if dust divulged a story, sand screamed its secrets." Points for that, Ms. Hughes. Excellent Beach Noir. And great female characters -- who essentially solved the mystery! -- were another plus.

A few detractors: the 2003 Feminist Press edition I read was riddled with typos ("busses" was used repeatedly when they meant "buses," and the back cover lists Hughes as an Edgar Allen Poe Award winner!). They may have since updated or remedied this, since their new edition seems to have a new cover as well. The afterward by Lisa Marie Hogeland was good though, particularly in its examination of Dix's lack of wanting to work and how that means male hardboiled readers wouldn't have identifed with him, since in their world, masculinity = work and vice versa (Brub is then the hero and Dix the villain). Hogeland, who draws on Draws on Erin A. Smith's Hardboiled: Working Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, points out that his refusal to work is somehow effeminate, as is his errand-boy role in Mel's life. Which brings us all back to Ripley, doesn't it?


Flicker said...

I'll type a few comments before I head for bed (the twins get up early, so I must not stay up all night, even on Saturday). I haven't read Mr. Ripley so can't comment on that, though doubtless you're right about the connection.

In book groups you're never supposed to say "I liked/didn't like the book," and yet, often that's the easiest place to start. Although I appreciate all the interesting things that Dorothy B. Hughes does in the book, and I read it quickly and avidly, I didn't love it. I think one reason is that she's doing too many things at once. If it were just a story about a loser stealing his friend's identity, that would be one thing -- it sounds like that's what The Talented Mr. Ripley is. And I wouldn't read it because books like that make me cringe. But instead you've got this whole serial killer angle which seems kind of unbelievable to me -- would a serial rapist/murderer ALSO be parading around in his friend-that-he-killed's clothes, using his charge cards, attracting the attention of the authorities for that too? This guy just seems to have too many problems.

Of course, he does have a lot of problems, that's the point of the book. So maybe I'm being too fussy.

Did it seem odd to you that the last two books we read both had main female characters named Laurel? NOT a common name at the time! My mother's name was Laurel (and she would have been about the age of these characters) and she never knew anyone with her name. But I digress. I wondered if there was anything to the two main female characters having such "woodsy" names -- Laurel and Sylvia -- but I couldn't do anything with the idea. And then we have Brub (???), Brucie, and of course dear Dix (that's a funny one).

What I'm wondering now is where this book fits in Dorothy B. Hughes' canon. I don't know anything about the type of books she wrote, except that I thought they were standard mysteries (but I could be wrong). I'd like to read more of her books, because she is an interesting, thoughtful writer. I just didn't love this book. I would like to see the movie now, though. I'll add it to our Netflix queue.

Andrea Janes said...

The movie is amazing! Nothing like the book, really, but incredible in its own right. Bogart and Grahame are sublime.