AN UNSUNG HEROINE
In trying to legitimize crime fiction for both the literary and academic crowds, pulp writers of old are being critiqued in a manner unheard of back when these writers were in their prime. Now it’s not uncommon to find a crime fiction class on such books at your local university, academic treatises on various writers going into painstaking detail about their life and work, and untold essays by students plumbing the depths of these books --even when there’s not necessarily much depth to them at all. Still, what this focus has done is bring previously forgotten writers to the forefront. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett have been elevated to the literary canon for so many years that it’s hard to remember a time when they were still only “pulp” writers. But Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, and Charles Willeford have only recently merited scholarly study.
No doubt more writers from a bygone era will be studied in great detail, and thanks to the work of theFeminist Press, it’s a good bet that Dorothy B. Hughes will be the subject of many university essays to come. Late last year, the City University of New York-based publishing house released In A Lonely Place, Hughes’ eleventh novel, as one of the three launch titles for their “Femmes Fatales” program, an initiative to bring back female pulp writers into print. It was also the basis for the eponymous 1950 film noir classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. But if you’d seen the movie prior to reading the book, you’d be in for a shock. The movie took some serious liberties with the story in creating its lead character of Dix Steele, a man accused of a crime he did not commit. The Dix of Hughes’s novel, whose point of view is the only one the reader is privy to, is a very different animal indeed: one whose creation was far ahead of its time.
The storyline of In a Lonely Place is rather straightforward; young women are being murdered in Los Angeles at a fairly rapid clip. Even though there are alleged sightings of the killer, the police are at a loss to catch him. Only a few months earlier, war veteran Dixon Steele moved from back East to try his luck at writing a novel. He’s firmly ensconced in a plush apartment belonging to a former classmate conveniently out of the country for an extended period. He’s renewing his acquaintance with best buddy Brub Nicolai, an LAPD detective, and even making time for romance with his tart-tongued actress neighbor Laurel Gray. Everything seems to be going right for Dix -- so why do things feel so wrong? Not only is he not writing, but he’s feeling the pinch. Laurel starts to cool on him, and Brub’s wife Sylvia is more open in her disapproval. Things are closing in tighter and tighter until he gets his ultimate comeuppance in an ending that leaves him an utterly broken man.
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