The '40s Noir Novel That Went Where "50 Shades" Won't
The male lead of Dorothy B. Hughes's "In a Lonely Place" says what Christian Grey won't: "I hate all women."
Bogie in the film adaptation of In a Lonely Place. Photograph by Moviepix for Getty Images.
In A Lonely Place is a novel about a sociopathic, albeit charming, brutaliser of young women, featuring two characters—one male, one female; passionately, sexually involved—with the now-familiar surnames "Steele" and "Grey." It was published first in 1947. Re-released this August by the NYRB, with a nod to its eternal gendered, heterosexual relevance included in its blurb, I would bet money E.L. James has never heard of it: her Grey—a boring, barely-freaky billionaire—and Steele—an idiot, a virgin, and coincidentally, a writer—are far less modern, even bordering on retrograde, and do not fight so interesting a battle. (Just for context: I read half of Fifty Shades of Grey, and stopped when someone put on "sandels." Maybe it gets better. Do not write to me and tell me, under any circumstances, if this is the case.)
Dorothy B. Hughes is widely held to be the greatest female writer of noir novels ever to have lived—though "widely" does not feel entirely appropriate, as prior to the NYRB's interest she was largely overlooked, and subsequently to the NYRB's interest she is still not talked about like Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson. In a Lonely Place is a slow-burning thriller in which former serviceman Dix Steele moves to L.A. and takes his post-war need for violence out on women. No longer a hero out of battle, he recovers power by becoming villainous. "To hell with happiness," says Dix about adopting murder as a life-partner, in lieu of meeting and then marrying a girl. "More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow."
What's so wrong with marshmallows? He does not say. We are to guess that he once—figuratively speaking—burned himself while toasting s'mores. (There is an ex, named Brucie, who appears in Dix's recollections like a spectre.) Writing in the New Yorker in 2012, just after The Expendable Man, a later novel by the author, had been given a reissue, Christine Smallwood said that Hughes' interest never lay in crime, but sin: the sins of brutal maleness, violence, inhumanity, and what the author calls "excretions of the white man," making Hughes more woke than half the novelists on Twitter. More considered and sophisticated than mere misandry, her treatment of the cis-male heterosexual psyche is half case study, half warning.
To call your male lead, who is terrified of being shown up in his masculinity, "Dix Steele" is—if you will excuse the pun— tres ballsy. To create a sleek and somewhat sympathetic murderer of women in a novel written almost forty-five years before Bret Easton Ellis gave us Patrick Bateman is astounding in its prescience. In a Lonely Place shares Steele's perspective, giving him the opportunity to both seduce us and, without the knowledge that he's doing so and by degrees, reveal himself—we register its female bit-part players through his keen, raptorial gaze, so that they are accordingly "drab women," "dark-haired, squawk-voiced," "scarecrow dame[s]," "the hunted," "shapeless sack[s] with heavy feet," "ugly beldame[s]," "snoopy," "interfering," "nosy," "a pleasure to throttle," "babbling," "too-wide," "disturbing…as if [they] could see under the covering of a man," and so on.
"The only exciting thing that ever happened to her was to be raped and murdered," he says about a victim—coolly, but not utterly devoid of self-awareness, as if he were not her killer but her talent agent. "Even then she was subbing in for someone else."
His downfall is, of course, a woman: Laurel Grey, who lives across the way in Dix's Spanish-Deco courtyard block, and is an actress. Laurel is a redhead, canny, living off a rich man's dime but hating to prostrate herself. The only dame in the novel who appears to feel desire, she's too hot to strangle. "She was greedy," slavers Dix, "and callous and a bitch, but she was fire, and a man needed fire." (In a modern film adaptation, Laurel Grey should obviously be played by Lindsay Lohan. She would probably be played by Emma Stone.)
Three years after the publication of the novel, In a Lonely Place was filmed with Humphrey Bogart in the Dix role—crucially, the movie plays him as a sociopath who's never actually committed murder, rather than a killer. Yes, he drinks: he's Bogart. Yes, he smokes: he's Bogart. Yes, he hulks in ways that somehow have their own discrete grace, like a big bear. Yes, he's human granite. What else would he be?
L.A. film critic Kim Morgan calls the adaptation, paradoxically and accurately, "violently poignant." Bogey's Dixon Steele is guilty of convincing a young coat-check girl to come back to his home at midnight, then becoming bored with her and sending her back home alone without an escort; but he doesn't kill her. In a fit of passion at the movie's climax, he does try to strangle Laurel. We are meant to think that this is when he switches from a bad boy—"dynamite"—to being simply bad, despite the fact that reading his arrest files out-loud, the police chief talks about an incident where Dix's ex-girl, Francis, "screams for help. Charges Steele beat her up, then claims she never made the charge. Alleges nose broken by walking into a door."
Bogey couldn't be a killer all-the-way and still be Bogey, any more than E.L. James' Christian Grey could hurt his girl, the Mary Sue-ish Anastasia Steele, for any reason other than his own pain; for any reason other than the idea that pain is synonymous with love, with passion, with hot sex. Centuries of muddling love with war have led eventually to normalizing casualties. The Dixon Steele in Hughes' novel is at least straightforward in his evil—he will say outright what Bogey's Dix and Christian Grey will not, which is: "I hate all women."