Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy B Hughes’


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. 1947club

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.


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the blackbirder

Well The Blackbirder proved to be just the very thing I needed as I came to the end of my first full week back at work. A piece of brilliant, literary escapism, The Blackbirder is forties noir, by an author often acknowledged as a master of the genre. My only other experience of Dorothy B Hughes is The Expendable Man which I read a few years ago – re-issued by Persephone books if you haven’t come across it, I urge you to do so it is absolutely brilliant. Back to the Blackbirder then, a book I loved so much I immediately ordered a Penguin Classics edition of In a Lonely Place – it seems many of her books are now available only as ebooks.

“The waiter was looking at her. Not just looking. He was watching. Under black caterpillar eyebrows, his cold little black eyes were crawling on her face
She whispered, ‘the waiter is looking at me.’ For a moment she thought she had said it out loud, that Maxl had heard her. Her lips had moved but she hadn’t spoken, only to herself. She mustn’t let Maxl guess that she had noticed the waiter. Maxl might have ordered the man to watch.”

Julie Guille is in New York, having escaped from occupied Paris, she is on the run from the gestapo and the FBI – her entry into the US illegal. She has been lying low in a rented apartment, biding her time, trying to forget the girl she used to be. In Paris she had been glamorous, groomed, before she felt the need to flee from the Nazis and her malevolent guardian Uncle Paul; Duc de Guille. One night at Carnegie she runs into a young man she knew slightly in Paris, Maxl – Julie can’t be sure – was their meeting accident or design. Not everyone is who they seem, but Julie can never let her suspicions show, she agrees to a drink with Maxl, where she is convinced she is being watched by the waiter. Maxl insists on showing Julie home in a taxi, moments after Julie enters her apartment, Maxl lies dead on the pavement outside. So starts Julie’s flight from New York, aboard a train via Chicago, headed for Santa Fe, in search ultimately for the elusive Blackbirder. The Blackbirder aids refugees across the border to New Mexico, and with Maxl dead outside her apartment, and the gestapo, FBI and her guardian all looking for her, he is, Julie is convinced her best chance of escape from the US.

“She had to watch her money. Nineteen hundred to see her through. It seemed a vast sum but it wasn’t. Because she was going to some far off place called Santa Fe and she didn’t want to be inconspicuous there. She was going as Julie Guille and she hoped someone would recognize the name. Someone who watched for refugees. Someone who was blackbirding.”

santa fe trainOn board train Julie meets a kindly older woman, travelling to see her daughter who is having a baby, she is also made very aware of a man, the grey man she calls him. The grey man is always there, at every moment, is he simply making the same journey? or is he someone more sinister than that. The grey man tries to engage her in conversation, puts Julie on her guard; he seems always one step ahead.

Julie is beset with anxieties, and suspicions, but she never lets her mask slip, she‘s watchful, paranoid, very afraid of being locked up as she was in France. Who is the Blackbirder? Will she be able to find him? and will he help her, and what of her beloved cousin Fran, imprisoned last she heard, could The Blackbirder help him too?

Once in Santa Fe, Julie is astonished to see Jacques, a friend of hers and Fran who once worked for her Uncle, whose wife died helping Julie escape from France. Jacques works for a local artist Mr Popin, could he be the Blackbirder? The grey man is still on her heels, staying at the same hotel – he claims to be called Roderick Blaike, injured from the RAF and he manages to get an invitation to view Mr Popin’s artwork at his remote home in Tesuque. During a snowstorm Julie and Blaike take a bus to Tesuque to meet Mr Popin, at the back of the bus sits a man Julie recognises from the night Maxl was murdered. From here things really get tense, is anyone who they say they are? Who if anyone can Julie trust?

“Julie turned to the interior. Blaike was at her shoulder waiting for her to move. She didn’t. She looked up the short aisle at a man with a black bowler potted on his round head. He was wedged into the exact center of the long back seat. He appeared hot and cramped yet stolidly unconscious of discomfort. His thick fingers were interlaced on his knees. The lustreless black eyes didn’t move nor did they light. But he saw her. He couldn’t help but see her.”

Julie Guille is a brilliant heroine, resourceful and tough, she’s believable, and feminine without ever using her sexuality to get what she wants. The Blackbirder is a fantastic page turner, very well written with locations every bit as fascinating as the characters I was really rather sorry when it was over.

dorothy b hughes

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