A few months ago I read The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes – a midcentury, mostly noir author, and I enjoyed it very much. Tautly written, with quite interesting insight into racial issues and abortion from the period, it definitely deserves the status of a reprint edition in the New York Review of Books series.
I had been wanting to read her most well-known novel In a Lonely Place for a time, but couldn’t find it any local libraries and dithered on just ordering a used copy from somewhere. Finally did it, though, started it last week, with some fits and starts, and ended up reading most of it this evening.
It’s her most well-known book because a film starring Humphrey Bogart was made from it, a film which I have not seen, but, from the plot summary seems to take the barest bones of Hughes’ novel and..recreate it. The movie does sound good, though, but not also doesn’t seem to have the same general focus of the novel, which is to get inside the mind of a serial murderer.
The book is written in the third-person, but with a limited point of view – that of Dix Steele, the character we slowly begin to realize is not quite right. It’s not stated right away, but I don’t think I’m spoiling much from stating it here – after all, you know there’s no reason for the book to exist if he’s actually just an innocent, happy-go-lucky World War II vet out in California trying to write a novel.
There were some surprises, though, and it was interesting to watch how Hughes handles the violence completely off-stage, as it were. This choice invites the reader to be more attentive to the text, to listen to Dix’s thoughts and study his actions more carefully. There was one plot point I should have picked up right away but didn’t until about twenty pages from the end, causing a Well, duh! to resound through the house.
It’s a cool, controlled, entertaining cat-and-mouse game, a snapshot of postwar LA, and an interesting literary exercise – to put us inside the mind of a character, but never specifically depicting his most important acts. I enjoyed The Expendable Man more – I found it more surprising and revelatory – but this was not a bad way at all to spend a couple of hours.
Yeah, not exactly the same vibe as the novel….