I love re-reading books, but I doubt I'll ever give IN A LONELY PLACE a second go. Not because it's a dull story or a badly written novel, but because in a sense it's almost too effective. Author Dorothy Hughes' venture into the mind of a serial killer in post-WW2 Los Angeles is gripping noir, but also mentally and morally exhausting. I may be slightly prejudiced because I happen to live almost exactly in the neighborhood where most of this novel takes place, but regardless of the reason, the book still kinda made me want to scrub out my brain after I finished it.
IN A LONELY PLACE is the story of Dickson Steele, an ex-Air Force pilot who has come to Los Angeles with many secrets, not the least of which is that his hobby is raping and murdering women. When he runs into his old war buddy Brub Nicolai, he's at once alarmed and thrilled by the discovery that Brub has become a detective in the Beverly Hills police department, and is trying to solve the very murders that he, Dix, is committing. While enjoying what he sees as a a kind of ongoing in-joke at his friend's expense, Dix soon develops an attraction to a wanna-be actress in his apartment complex named Laurel Gray, but Laurel's presence in Dickson's life throws him off his game. On the one hand, he genuinely loves the hard and sultry Laurel; on the other, he genuinely hates women - especially Brub's attractive and too-shrewd wife, Sylvia. And when Dix Steele feels stress, his only relief is indulging in his hobby.
IN A LONELY PLACE is in many ways classic noir. It was written in 1947, and a sense of postwar disappointment pervades every page, along with a feeling that Dickson somehow represents the stereotype of the midcentury American male gone horribly wrong. In one sense has all the traits associated with maniless - a danger-loving loner who drinks hard, loves hard, wears the right clothes, drives the right car and plays by his own rules, he could be the archetypal hero of any hundred detective or adventure novels, except that each of these traits is as twisted as a corkscrew. His daredevilry takes the form of a sick cat-and-mouse game played for cheap thrills, his sexuality is mixed up with misogyny and sadism, and his easygoing lifestyle is predicated on theft and parasitism. As for playing by his own rules, they amount to to thinking, apropos of one of his victims, "the only exciting thing that had ever happened to her was to be raped and murdered." Being inside his mind is a grim and disheartening experience, a sort of tour-de-force of the worst aspects of human desires. In a sense he's a kind of metaphor for frustrated Hollywood types who are long on ambition but short on talent and scruples. And this is the novel's strength as well as its weakness, because Dix is such a total rotter that after a while you just want to put the book down and take a shower. And yet it's a testament to the strength of Hughes' cool, cynical, intensely personal prose that you don't put the book down. You have to keep reading, keep peeling back the layers of this rotten onion to see if there's anything at the core. Whether Hughes delivers that last explanatory kernel a matter of opinion; Dix's final utterance could be seen as an unsatisfying cop-out or a brilliant bit of existential simplicity. Who knows? Maybe I'll have to read the damned thing again after all, just to decide.