I read Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place last week and enjoyed it so much, I had to say something. It was the Feminist Press’ Femmes Fatales edition, which comes with an excellent afterword by Lisa Maria Hogeland in the back. I had not heard of the Femme Fatales series before this book, but have already checked out two more from the library.
The novel itself, and Hogeland’s essay, reminded me of Meghan Abbott’s Why Women Love to Read About Crime piece. (Not surprisingly, Abbott herself is a major fan of In a Lonely Place, and has written about the book.) So often, when women profess to like media that features something dark (violence, crime, sordid sex), society can’t decide what to make of it. There is a lot of hand-wringing. The general sentiment: “But why would a woman like this? Why would a woman want to read about bad things—especially bad things happening to women?”
As a woman who loves crime fiction (and nonfiction, and movies and TV), I hate that line of thinking. It is as tired and sexist as “can women be funny?” I know more women than men who can make me laugh so hard I cry, and more women than men who enjoy reading books about vicious, gruesome things. (There is a lot of crossover in those populations.) Anyone who continues to ask those tired questions simply does not know many women.
But even if one puts the inherent sexism of the “why do women like crime” question aside, In a Lonely Place might yet strike an outsider as a strange choice for a feminist series. The book’s protagonist, after all, is a rapist and killer of women.
From my perspective, women are exactly the audience that would want to read about something like that, as long as the writing is not loaded with misogyny. To be a woman, or part of any other historically mistreated group, is to live with a personal understanding that the world is not fair. That bad things happen, and might happen to you. And if they do happen to you, you may not be believed. Part of what is so deeply appealing about noir is that it is built on this premise. From Hogeland’s afterword:
Film noir has generated a substantial body of scholarly literature, focusing on its visual style, its political and historical contexts, and its (usually misogynist) depictions of women. Feminist film scholar B. Ruby Rich describes the mix of elements in classic film noir: “Noir etched a metaphor of light and shadow into the popular psyche; rain-slicked streets, feelings of loss, fear and betrayal; male bonding, femmes fatales, post-war malaise, atomic pressures, Communist threats, melodrama and gangsters all coalesced under its banner.” And she writes, “film noir became a pressure-cooker of overheated desires and overwhelming drives, instincts pushed way past reason into an intoxicating delirium of film style” (132).
What is so satisfying about good crime fiction (and by that I mean the Dorothy B. Hughes variety, not the Mickey Spillane) is that it does not sugarcoat. Rather, it provides frank acknowledgement of these issues. It tells the readers, “yes, terrible things do happen to women in our society—so let’s talk about it, and maybe even let the women take revenge.” (I can’t help thinking of Lisbeth Salander here.)
What makes Hughes’ book so singular, especially for its time, is her treatment of the archetypes: the killer (Dix Steele), the femme fatale (Laurel Gray), and the “good girl” (Sylvia Nicolai). Hogeland’s afterword covers this in greater depth. Suffice it to say that, though Dix is the protagonist, he is not to be liked or pitied, and his interpretation of the events and characters around him is not to be trusted. For example, his perception of the first time Laurel and Sylvia meet one another:
He’d had a slight apprehension over the phone that Laurel might have been drinking. She hadn’t been. Her scent was perfumed, not alcoholic; she had never looked more glowing. She was in white, all white but for her radiant hair and painted mouth and eyes. Before her Sylvia was colorless and yet before Sylvia, Laurel was too richly colored. Between them was the gulf of a circumstance of birth and a pattern of living.
– Page 101
As becomes clear later in the novel, the women are not sizing one another up; they are not jealous of one another, vying for his attention. That’s all in his head. His issues with women are his own, not the fault of some overbearing mother or ex-girlfriend. As Abbott writes:
In another noir novel, Laurel and Sylvia might be presented as femme fatales, seeking to entice and entrap Dix. But in Hughes’s hands, they are neither vixens nor passive victims. They are dual investigators, and at least as powerful as Dix fears. They see through him, see him for what he is. The more penetrating their gaze, the more hysterical he becomes.
– The Gimlet Eye of Dorothy B. Hughes
While I don’t find Dix sympathetic, I thoroughly enjoyed being in his head through the course of the book, and I found the descriptions of his disillusionment and unhappiness (or “the megrims,” as he puts it) quite affecting:
That life was so real that there wasn’t any other life. Even when the war was over there was no realization of another life. Not until he stood again in the small, dark living room of his uncle’s home. It came as a shock, the return to Uncle Fergus; he hadn’t really known it wasn’t going to be always the way it had been in the war years. He had mistaken interlude for life span.
– Page 114
I’m not sure what else I can say about this book, other than that it is definitely my favorite thing I’ve read in 2016 so far, and it’s possible I will just spend the next few months working my way through the rest of the Femmes Fatales series. I encourage you to consider the same.