Monday, August 20, 2007

Review of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Where in the world is Carm-- er, Splendid IREny?Lost in the bowels of the human network is a conversation I had with Splendid IREny shortly before she went intentionally missing. I mentioned that I expected to next hear from her via book jacket, presumably encasing the published story of the female noir hero she was then toying with. (Maybe she's working on it now.) I knew exactly what the photo would look like.*

As a "books for buds" entry, I wanted to uncover dark crime fiction that, if I couldn't find something with a female detective lead, at least somehow subverted or played with the hypermasculinity I associate with noir. A hunt on Amazon revealed a series of pulp classics authored by women, and In a Lonely Place got the highest ranking of the bunch. I'm going to be thinking about that brilliant insight as I stuff this in the stacks between my collection of Peter Whimsy stories and my lone Agatha Christie tome. I guess crime fiction was hardly just (or hardly best) a man's game sixty years ago, anymore than it is today. Oh well.

When I cracked open this novel, I felt a tremendous let-down: the prose is just awful. Hughes wrote the whole book as a series of simple declarative sentences that evinced no particular rhythm, and certainly no pleasures of sound, expression, or description. In the few places where the tension accelerated my reading, the prose aspired to be invisble, but in the subtler dramas of shared looks and perceptions (He was angry. He looked at her. She couldn't tell. She gave him a stare.), it was completely unevocative. Oddly, I felt guilty about this. If I'm reviewing a book for someone, I want it to be a good book.

It took nearly half the book to realize that Hughes' poor "telling" didn't overturn any old writing maxims. Her vision is fine, she's just not very good at saying it. In fact, by the end of the book, I became impressed by the subtlety of how the author tugged at expectations. The point-of-view character, Dix Steele, is introduced as (and is named like) a traditional war hero: ace pilot, good looks, confident. The author sets up a good chill by the third page--the "hero" is a cold-blooded bastard, a killer. His point of view is refreshingly not cerebral. Dix doesn't analyze himself, there are no boring internal monologues or tired episodes of psychobabble. Hughes doesn't get past Dix's own self-image in the narration, which is indolent, narcissistic, not very articulate (for a would-be writer), and hinges on a confidence that's genuine but not always maintainable. It must have been a challenging storytelling approach: it succeeds exclusively on what's shown. (For this reason, I bet the movie was great.)

I didn't like the character, but despite his evil, he's not insane exactly, and I almost wanted an out to present itself. His background doesn't inspire the confidence he shows (and though Hughes barely mentions it, war death appears to have affected him strongly). I don't know if it takes a woman to poke holes in that masculine self-assurance and to expose the possessive notions of romantic love, but she calls it for a facade, opaque enough to obscure the other characters as well as the plot itself. The red-headed femme fatale is not the frighteningly sharp vixen she appears, his friend's wife's odd behavior isn't attraction, and the investigation proceeds not through detective heroics, but routinely and behind the scenes as Dix Steele spins his borrowed wheels with growing urgency. The unraveling is cleverly paced, and manages to rise above the blank narration. Glad I stuck with this one.

Addendum (from comments): Hemingway, anti-heroes, etc.: talk about your low-hanging critical fruit. Did I ever mention I was an engineering major?

*Go ahead and click on it. I spent hours tweaking my original pencil sketch from a Napoleon Dynamite special (I spent, like, three hours on shading the lower lip alone) into something (I hope) not insulting.

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twiffer said... know, i like mysteries, but have never really gotten into noir. mostly brother cadfael novels. and gideon oliver mysteries (forsenic antropologist as a detective of-sorts).

Keifus said...

No, noir is definitely not my thing either, but I'm trying to pursue different stuff here. I only rarely read mysteries as it is, but anything well-written tends to please.

(I don't think this book would qualify as noir.)

twiffer said...

i have to say too, your artwork for this one stirs up memories of carmen sandiego.

i mean that in a good way.

Keifus said...

Twiff, that's not altogether a coincidence.

(I finally found out what the "alt=" tag means in the img html thingie. It's a verbal description if the image fails, but it's also what's in the little popup when you hover the cursor. I've been having a little fun with that for the past couple weeks.)

Dawn Coyote said...

Any thoughts on female anti-hero types, or dark heroes? I've been thinking of doing a blog from the point of view of a female sociopath, taking off from points in my own life, and stripping out emotional connection, sliding into fiction. Seems like it might be a fun project, though possibly unnerving. Which I love.

Fond Adversaria is gone, alas. Just fyi for when you next update links.

I must email SI. I miss her.

Keifus said...

That was pretty much what I was looking for here, and I didn't find it. Although I can come up with a couple reimagined female roles (Wide Sargasso Sea stuff) the only female antiheroes (where was that vocabulary when I needed it) I can think of come from science fiction. Dan Simmons inverted the noir stereotypes overtly in one of his segements in Hyperion. Wish I did better there.

Will update next time I do maintenance. I'm sure the fiction project would work out well, Fond Adversary, maybe even be therapeutic. But it does sound unnerving.

Grant Miller said...

Sounds like Hughes was reading a little too much Ernest Hemingway. Or maybe not enough.

Keifus said...

GM: I think that's a good call (either way).