Dorothy B. Hughes In a Lonely Place (1947)
His hand slowly stroked the dog’s curly head. ‘Nice fellow,’ he said. The dog was nuzzling him when the girl came out of the fog. Dix looked up at her and he said, ‘Hello.’ She wasn’t afraid. She said carelessly, ‘Hello.’ He smiled. She didn’t know that behind that smile lay his hatred of Laurel, hatred of Brub and Sylvia, of Mel Terriss, of old Fergus Steele, of everyone in the living world...
Whoa. Fabulous book. I couldn't put it down.
The majority of crime stories I read are of a conventional type: the search for the unknown committer of a crime, with the great identity revelation served up at the end. In a Lonely Place inverts our expectations by focusing the narrative on the known murderer and presenting the unravelling of his crazy little fantasy world. This is a really spooky, eerie and frightening book.
The color under her sunbrown had returned as she did the little normal things of lipstick, cigarette. He could make it recede so easily, a word, or one more question on the subject. He could make her heart stop beating as easily. With a simple statement. His lips smiled. And his eyes again turned to the room. Away from temptation.
The tension is excruciating at times: not only could almost anyone whom the murderer encounters become his next victim, but his best friend Brub (if a serial killer has friends!), an old war buddy, is the detective on the case and there is, indeed "A moment when each knew the other for what he was, the hunter and the hunted." The writing is terrific:
He heard Sylvia’s amused voice as from afar, as through a film of gray mist. ‘Brub’s always looking for the hidden motive power. That’s because he’s a policeman.’ He came sharply into focus. The word had been a cold spear deliberately thrust into his brain. He heard his voice speak the cold, hard word. ‘Policeman?’ But they didn’t notice anything. They thought him surprised, as he was, more than surprised, startled and shocked. They were accustomed to that reaction. For they weren’t jesting; they were speaking the truth. Brub with an apologetic grin; his wife with pride under her laughter. ‘He really is,’ she was saying. And Brub was saying, ‘Not a policeman now, darling, a detective.’
I don't want to give away too much, but the elements which make this book so enticing are a wonderful setting (making one nostalgic for a more innocent, big country town-like 1950s Santa Monica/L.A./Beverly Hills), gorgeous femme fatales in the best noir style, and a hero who leaves the reader feeling entirely ambivalent - can one pity a serial strangler of women when he's "in a lonely place"? The murderer has flashes of overwhelming anger when his ability to control himself seems insurmountable. Tiny, everyday noises set him off. He struggles with the post-war world, having lost the status and pay that went with being a jet-fighter colonel. He has only bitterness towards those who are better off. He is an irrational, volatile, depressive, jealous, vain, ex-alcoholic psychopath who kills the only people who could help him; but he is also, somehow, pitiable.
The phone hadn’t rung all day. It wasn’t going to ring now, not while he stood here in the bedroom looking at it. There wasn’t any girl worth getting upset over. They were all alike, cheats, liars, whores. Even the pious ones were only waiting for a chance to cheat and lie and whore. He’d proved it, he’d proved it over and again. There wasn’t a decent one among them. There’d only been one decent one and she was dead. Brucie was dead. Laurel couldn’t disappoint him. He’d known what she was the first time he’d looked at her. Known he couldn’t trust her, known she was a bitchy dame, cruel as her eyes and her taloned nails. Cruel as her cat body and her sullen tongue. Known he couldn’t hurt her and she couldn’t hurt him. Because neither of them gave a damn about anyone or anything except their own skins.
Favourite line: "Liquor is such a nice substitute for facing adult life."
If you liked this... I've downloaded Hughes' The Blackbirder.