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If You Want Groundbreaking Noir, Try Looking 'In A Lonely Place'


This is FRESH AIR. The American writer Dorothy B. Hughes, who was born in 1904 and died in 1993, was one of the most successful crime novelists in mid-century America with several of her books turned into Hollywood movies. Her best known is "In A Lonely Place." A new edition of the novel has just come out, and our critic at large, John Powers, says Hughes' version of noir is excitingly radical.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It's something of an axiom that good novels make bad movies, but one of my favorite exceptions is "In A Lonely Place," the 1950 noir classic directed by Nicholas Ray that you owe it to yourself to see. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame giving their best ever performances, it's one of those brooding '50s pictures that's far deeper, darker and more psychologically potent than anything Hollywood is making today. While the movie's justly famous, the same can't be said of the original 1947 novel by Dorothy B Hughes. For years, I lazily assumed that Ray had turned a lousy pulp thriller into a silk purse. Then one day, I finally read it. And I discovered that the novel, just re-released by New York Review Books, is more groundbreaking than the film. And that Hughes, who died in 1993, belongs in the crime writing pantheon with male icons like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Set in post-World War II LA, it's the story of Dix Steele, a former fighter pilot who misses the power, exhilaration and freedom of being alone in the sky. He's come West with the vague notion of being a writer, but he merely lives off an allowance from his uncle and freeloads in the apartment of an old Princeton friend who's out of town. Bored and frustrated that his life isn't grand enough, Dix pursues the obsession that does give him the same high as flying - in lonely places like foggy beaches and deserted bus stops, he stalks women and kills them.

Of course, serial killers need company, too, so he looks up an old war buddy who, to Dix's chagrin, has gotten married and become a detective.

As if that weren't unsettling enough, Dix thinks both women and cops snoopy (ph). He meets a sexy fellow resident of his apartment complex named Laurel Gray. She's an on-the-make actress and sometimes kept woman with flaming hair and an alluring spikiness. Naturally, he's fascinated. And because he has charm and good looks, Laurel is drawn to him, too. But will she find out too late that Dix is more than just a metaphorical lady killer?

"In A Lonely Place" is a gripping story, but Hughes was too talented, ambitious and grounded to play it merely for suspense. This is a woman, after all, who'd won the prestigious Yale young poets competition, joining a list that includes James Agee, W.S. Merwin and John Ashbery, written history books and raised a family. She was always fascinated by loners on the social or psychological margins of society. Her 1963 thriller "The Expendable Man" tackles American racism. Here, she takes us so far inside Dix's warped psyche that we almost root for him. But she pushes way beyond that.

You see, if there's one figure that dominates hardboiled stories, it's the murdered woman, be it the Black Dahlia or Laura Palmer or any of a thousand others. Female deaths are used to launch plots, titillate viewers and maybe scare us, yet the scariest thing may be just how habitual their use has become. Steeped in male fantasy, women's corpses become little more than part of the decor or the mood. Hughes puts that reflexive misogyny in the spotlight. Although there are dead female victims in the novel, they serve to make us conscious of Dix's multifaceted hatred of women - his repulsion at their domesticity, his dread of their emotional perceptiveness, his attraction to their flesh, his fear of their abandonment and his satisfaction in their deaths.

And crucially, Hughes refuses to make her female characters passive. It would spoil things to say how, but as Megan Abbott points out in her splendidly perceptive afterword, Hughes takes the gender cliches of noir and turns them on their head. In a larger sense, Dix's story reveals the essence of being a violent hater. He tries to control his feelings of sadness and powerlessness, not through self-knowledge or personal change, but by finding someone to blame and erase - in this case, women. But far from bringing him salvation or even relief, his hatred turns out to be the loneliest place of all.

DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed a new edition of "In A Lonely Place" by Dorothy B. Hughes, published by New York Review Books.

On tomorrow's show, we'll talk with Mark Pitcavage, senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, about America's militia movement - what they stand for and how they've evolved since the election of Donald Trump. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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