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“Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago, in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

cover in a lonely placeDickson Steele, a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, has arrived in Los Angeles after wandering, post-war, through Europe and parts of the US, unable to settle down and permanently dissatisfied with his life and his prospects. In Los Angeles, he hopes for a life of excitement as he works on a novel, but even though he has an uncle who has agreed to support him for a year as he works on his book, and has a friend who has loaned him his own elegant, fully-furnished apartment in Beverly Hills while he is away on business, he knows in his heart that nothing will ever quite equal “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that [comes] with loneness in the sky.” He has recently discovered that there is a touch of that loneness at night at the beach, when he looks down from above “at the ocean rolling endlessly in from the horizon,” and when he “put out his hand to the mossy fog as if he would capture it… [he sees] “his hand as a plane passing through a cloud,” a memory which makes him smile.

Author Dorothy B, Hughes

Author Dorothy B. Hughes

Sharing his feelings with the reader, Dix becomes the linchpin of this psychological noir mystery written in 1947 by Dorothy B. Hughes, and within the first two pages, the reader discovers that Dix’s thoughts and behavior are vastly different from what the rest of us would consider “normal.” By the third page, he is following an attractive young woman walking along the road and planning what he will say to her when he catches up to her. Only a series of cars passing prevents him from crossing the street to meet up with her, and he decides to let her go, turning instead into a local bar. Author Hughes, with her efficient pacing and streamlined prose, does not make the reader wait long for the action to develop. On the fourth page, at the bar, Dix overhears another patron nearby mention a man named “Brub,” the name of one of his friends from the air corps whom he has not seen for two years. A quick call from Dix to Brub at his house in Santa Monica Canyon, and the old friends decide to get together that night at Brub’s house. There Dix meets Brub’s wife Sylvia and also learns that Brub, having graduated from Berkeley, has now started work at a new job – as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Los Angeles City Hall, where the police department was located from 1928 – 1990.

As Dix and Brub go their separate ways that night, author Hughes has effectively set up the foundation for all the action which will transpire in the course of this novel. On his way home from Brub’s, he sees an unknown girl and walks toward her. An eight-hour break occurs in the narrative, during which time Dix is apparently asleep, awakened only by the phone the next morning. Sylvia is inviting him to dinner with her and Brub at their local country club. He accepts, does errands during the day, and prepares to meet Brub, all the while resenting his wife Sylvia, whom he regards as “snoopy.” Nevertheless, he also believes that socializing with her and Brub will be intriguing and challenging, though he is basically a lone wolf. Feeling that “the game would be heightened if he teamed up with a detective, he agrees to meet with them. On his way out that night, he sees two things that become the literary “point of attack” for the novel: first, he sees, for the first time, a beautiful red-haired woman who lives above him, and second, he sees the headlines of the local newspaper, announcing a murder in town the previous night.

Poster for the film version of this novel.

Poster for the film version of this novel.

In the first twenty pages of this novel, then, Dorothy B. Hughes has set the scene, taken the reader inside the mind of the main character, an odd sort of protagonist who is telling his story; given background information about him from his own point of view, showing how he thinks; introduced the “antagonist,” a long-time friend from the air corps who happens to be a detective now; introduced the thematic contrasts between strong women and those who lead lives which destine them to become victims; hinted at further action involving the red-haired woman who lives upstairs from Dix; and indicated that Dix plans to match wits with Brub in some kind of game he is playing. Efficiently, Hughes will develop these ideas throughout the remainder of this two-hundred page novel, bringing her characters to life and the action to a peak. In the process she will also bring Los Angeles and its suburbs to life as people try to get back to the kinds of lives they had before the war. Women are stronger now, having taken the place of men who were away fighting in Europe during the war, and some of the men who have returned may have what is now recognized as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Newspapers and the radio are the only public sources of information, and news travels more slowly, offering less opportunity for women to take the safety precautions which we all now recognize as essential for self-protection.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in the film version of this novel.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame starring in the film of this novel.

Published by New York Review Books, In a Lonely Place is letter perfect, with not a word too many, yet fully developed in all respects. Written in 1947, it breathes with the personal agonies and, occasionally, rewards of the times and the bleakness of the traumas with which some of those who served the country must deal as they return to civilian life – lives which may not offer any of the opportunities to be heroes which all people crave. Vivid and emotionally rich, the novel, successful in its own right, is only slightly disappointing in its ending. It eventually became a film starring Humphrey Bogard and Gloria Grahame, a novel in which many aspects of the narrative were changed, creating a film about Hollywood and celebrity rather than about the effects of the war on ordinary humans. Both works are dark, but the book is far more ambitious and far more universal in its themes than the film.

Photos. The author’s photo is from https://www.goodreads.com

Los Angeles City Hall, where the police department was located from 1928 – 1990:  https://en.wikipedia.org

The poster for the 1950 film of this novel, quite different, appears on https://en.wikipedia.org

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame starred in the 1950 version of this novel:  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Review. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Mystery, Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, United States, Hollywood.
Written by: Dorothy B. Hughes
Published by: New York Review Books
Date Published: 08/15/2017
ISBN: 978-1681371474
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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