The Last Book I Loved: In A Lonely Place


The book I am reading and loving right now is In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes. I have known and loved the Humphrey Bogart movie based on the novel for a long time. The movie is about a deeply troubled screenwriter. It turns out the novel is nothing like it. (I think there’s a joke about that fact in the film version: Bogart’s character is struggling to adapt an unadaptable novel.)

Here’s the thing. The “Humphrey Bogart” of the novel is not a screenwriter. He’s a serial killer. (I don’t think this is a spoiler, because it’s pretty apparent by page two or three.) Dix Steele (!) is a thoroughly imagined and thoroughly unpleasant character, and sometimes—usually—I resent it when a writer wants to teach me a lesson by putting me into a head like that for an entire book. But Ms. Hughes is a real storyteller, and her didactic ambitions, if any, are buried nice and deep. Her book manages to be gripping and elliptical at the same time, very cool like chromium, with just a splash of purple here and there. Part of the cold pleasure of living in Steele’s world is just crossing your fingers for the moment when he’s going to get what’s coming to him. (He may or may not. I’m not at the end yet.) He’s smug and weirdly blessed by evil luck and Ms. Hughes has packed him full of peacock maleness. Significantly, it’s not Steele’s war buddy, a police detective investigating the case, on whom you hang your hopes. The detective’s wife, she’s the one. She sees things the detective doesn’t see. She’s the brains and heart of the book and I hope she’s going to be okay.

Jack Pendarvis is a columnist for the Believer and the author of three books. He currently writes for the TV show Adventure Time. More from this author →