Post-Second World War and pilot Dix Steele has drifted to Los Angeles where he is notionally writing a novel, living off a monthly allowance posted to him by a wealthy uncle, and staying in the apartment of an old university friend who is away in Rio for a year. Clever, charming, confident and missing the meritocracy of the armed services, Steele resents not being independently wealthy and tries to attach himself to rich folk in order to sponge from them. He also possesses an almost uncontrollable rage against women and for the past six months he has vented his anger by strangling and raping one woman each month. Prowling the fog-bound beach area he loses a potential prey and decides instead to look up an old war buddy, Brub Nicolai. It turns out that Brub has married and settled down, and more ominously, has joined the police and is working as a detective on the murders. Rather than backing away, Steele seeks to use Brub to keep him informed on progress on the case. In the meantime, he has started a whirlwind romance with the smart and sassy actress Laurel Gray, a femme fatale that whilst at first smitten becomes increasingly concerned at Steele’s jealously and possessiveness. As the murder investigation gathers pace and closes in, Steele remains confident that he has outwitted them all.
Dorothy B Hughes writes literary hardboiled noir taking on and matching Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Thompson at their game. In a Lonely Place is atmospheric, taut, tense and dark. Although written in the third person, the story is told exclusively from the point of view of Dix Steele, a misogynist with a murderous psychosis, and Hughes does well at capturing his corrupted rationalities. This is not however at the expense of the other characters, who are still well realised and rounded. The pacing is nicely done, with the gradual unfolding of Steele’s back story and the investigation of the murders, yet there is no flab, the story being tightly told. There's also no violence, with Hughes able to create drama and tension without directly portraying any of the crimes or their aftermath. For my tastes, the story is a little too melodramatic in places and I whilst I enjoyed it and recognised all its merits, I was never fully captivated and swept along by the story. Nevertheless, a very solid piece of hardboiled noir and I hope to read more of her books in due course.