Having thoroughly enjoyed both the 1924 club and the 1938 club, I was delighted for another chance to celebrate the work of one literary year. This time it’s the 1947 club, and despite being only just after the war it seems to have been a pretty bumper year.
It is not surprising that in a novel published just two years after the Second World War ended, that that conflict remains present, in the lives of its characters. I think that is what makes 1947 such a brilliant choice of year. I am currently reading my second 1947 read – One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes – an entirely different kind of book – the war is naturally a shadowy presence there too. More of that book another time.
Dorothy B Hughes is a writer of classic, suspenseful, noir style novels. She was an enormously prolific novelist in her day, I have loved both the Hughes novels I have read previously and this one certainly didn’t disappoint. In a lonely Place, was adapted for the silver screen starring the great Humphrey Bogart. I love Humphrey Bogart and films of this type, though I haven’t seen this particular one. I understand the film is a little different to the book, which I can well understand as no matter how much I love Humphrey Bogart – I really can’t see him as Dix Steele, despite the above cover art prompting me to do so.
As with The Expendable Man and The Blackbirder – the two other Hughes novels I have read, this novel is enormously atmospheric, Hughes gives us tense, compelling storytelling. It really is heart in the mouth stuff, yet I didn’t really want it to end.
War veteran Dix Steele has come to Los Angeles, for several months he has been staying in the apartment of a wealthy young man who he knew at college, before the war. His uncle is supporting Dix, while he writes a book. One night in a bar, a word overheard by Dix reminds him of his one-time best friend who he served with in England during the war. He immediately finds a phone box and gives his old friend a ring. Dix is a troubled man, depressed, cynical he drinks too much – seems angry at the world.
“Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”
Brub Nicolai lives nearby and is surprised and delighted to hear from Dix – and invites him over that evening. Things have changed since the two were last together, Brub is now married, to Sylvia, a cool, intelligent woman – who Dix notices observes him closely, from the first moment they meet. Brub informs his old friend that he is now a policeman, a detective, and like all his colleagues is working long hours on a most disturbing case.
For months the women of Los Angeles have been terrified by the shadow of a strangler – a killer who preys on his victims in the dark. The police, as yet have no clues. Dix is rather thrown by Brub’s revelation that he is a policeman, it’s not at all what he had expected of him. He tells Brub he is writing a book, a crime story, with which his old friend might be able to help him.
Hughes is far too clever to give us just another mystery story, whodunit or police procedural, I knew that already. Within a few pages, the reader knows that something is not all it might be – there is a sense of prickling unease, things we are never completely sure of. I love that aspect, though it makes the book hard to put down.
Following his evening at the Nicolais’, Dix heads back to where he has been living, by bus. Dix is very aware of the people around him, he notices people, watches.
“Dix sat in the front seat, his face turned to the window. Away from the dull lights of the interior. Others boarded the bus as it rumbled along Wilshire through Santa Monica, into Westwood. He didn’t turn his head to look at the others but he could see their reflections in the window pane. There was no one worth looking at.
The fog thinned as the bus left Westwood and hurried through the dark lane framed by the woodland golf course. At Beverley you could see street corners again, as though a grey mesh. You could see the shop windows and the people on the streets. Only there were no people, the little city was as deserted as a small town. Dix kept his face pressed to the window.”
One person Dix notices is Laurel Gray, the gorgeous red-head in the apartment upstairs. Laurel has ambitions, has already had some movie experience, likes money – and seems to like Dix. Laurel really knows what she wants, and what she wants takes more money than Dix has. None of that prevents Dix embarking on a heady affair with the sultry Laurel. Soon the cracks begin to show, Laurel asks too many questions, arrives home late, keeps Dix waiting. Dix learns how reliant she is on her ex-husband’s money, while his own financial woes have only got worse.
The interplay between characters is brilliant, characters are mistrustful, watchful and nervous, their mood very definitely reflecting the events which are on the front page of the newspaper that is delivered to Dix’s apartment.
Another woman has been found strangled, and the police investigation goes into overdrive. The most recent victim went to a drive in restaurant for coffee with her killer, and yet no one seems able to describe him. Dix – and sometimes Laurel – spend time with Brub and Sylvia at their club, here Dix hears about the strangler case, the lack of clues, the frustration felt by the investigators. He sees Brub, arriving home later and later, Sylvia, tense, worried, alarmed by the number of women who have been killed already. Dix meets Brub’s chief, is driven out to one of the recent crime scenes, allowed privileged access to the investigation. Learns about tyre tracks, dust and the unreliability of witnesses.
In a lonely place was a great pick for the 1947 club – I really need to read more by this author.