The Origins of American Noir




Reading Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place for the first time is like finding the long-lost final piece to an enormous puzzle. Within its Spanish bungalows, its eucalyptus-scented shadows, you feel as though you’ve discovered a delicious and dark secret, a tantalizing page-turner with sneakily subversive undercurrents. While only intermittently in print for much of the last half century, its influence on crime fiction is unsung yet inescapable. From Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson to Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Harris, nearly every “serial killer” tale of the last seventy years bears its imprint—both in terms of its sleek, relentless style and its claustrophobic “mind of the criminal” perspective. But its larger influence derives from Hughes’s uncanny grasp of the connection between violence and misogyny and an embattled masculinity. And its importance extends beyond form or genre and into cultural mythos: the birth of American noir. 

Over the course of her career, Hughes wrote fourteen novels, most of them published between 1940 and 1952. She also reviewed crime fiction and wrote an award-winning critical biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. Several of her novels were made into Hollywood movies, including, most famously, In a Lonely Place (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. What truly sets her apart from most of her crime-fiction peers, however, is, as noted in Christine Smallwood’s New Yorker Page-Turner blog post on Hughes’s final, superb novel, The Expendable Man (1963), her abiding interest in the psychology of difference, in taking on the perspectives of those unlike herself: from street punks to political prisoners, from an African American doctor to a war refugee among the Tesuque Indians. And, in In a Lonely Place, a returning veteran.

In a Lonely Place is the story of Dix Steele, a World War II fighter pilot who ends up in Los Angeles, the terminus of America. Much like Highsmith’s Tom Ripley (still eight years from creation), Dix is jobless, living beyond his means on precariously gained family funds and a talent for exploiting wealthy and weak friends. When we meet him, he’s desperate to recapture that wartime glory, “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom.” Without his fighter-pilot uniform, without the purpose and glory the war brought, Dix is unmoored, unstable, dangerous. And while we remain in his head for much of the book, it’s what he does mostly in the gaps between the chapters, the startling ellipses, that forms the dark marrow of the novel. To his mind, the enemy is not the war, its trauma, but what men face upon their return: staid domesticity, the strictures of class, emasculation. And these threats are embodied wholly in women. Women, whose penetrating gazes are far mightier than his sword.

It is nearly impossible to read In a Lonely Place, with its Los Angeles setting, its themes of dislocation and paranoia, its charged male-female relations, and not consider its place within the American hard-boiled tradition of writers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett. By 1947, when the novel appeared, these tales of (mostly) cynical detectives, crooked cops, and tabloid murder had exerted a cultural pull for some decade and a half. While other crime fiction may have sold better (Chandler, for instance, was never a big seller), hard-boiled tales dominated pulp magazines and the burgeoning paperback market and proved irresistible to Hollywood. From its private eyes to its beat cops, from its wily gangsters to its craven millionaires, the hard-boiled world was predominantly male. When a woman did appear, it was typically in the form of the femme fatale whose powerful sexuality threatens to entice the male protagonist to his doom. Occasionally we find another type, the good girl, the Girl Friday (consider Anne Riordan in Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, or Lola in Cain’s Double Indemnity), who represents a different kind of entrapment to the male: the surrender of freedom and the acceptance of the role as husband, father, breadwinner, company man.

At the hard-boiled story’s end, the good girl must be rejected (or recuse herself) and the femme fatale must be sent to prison (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep) or die (Farewell, My Lovely). Her defeat heralds the hero’s regaining of control or mastery of himself. In the more fatalistic tales, such as Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice and, later, countless Jim Thompson and David Goodis novels of the more nihilistic 1940s and ’50s, the protagonist goes down with her.

Yet, in Hughes’s dexterous hands, In a Lonely Place reverses and upturns all these conventions. Her Dix Steele (whom Hughes, winkingly, has pose as a mystery novelist) views women with even more wariness than Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and more cynicism than Hammett’s Sam Spade. Soon enough, Dix faces both genre staples: a putative femme fatale in the glamorous, morally questionable, sexually independent Laurel, and a good girl—Brub’s wife, Sylvia. But Dix is no slightly tarnished knight nor is he a simple sap; he’s an amoral hustler, a liar, and much, much worse. As the story unfolds, we gradually understand that the danger is not without but within. And it is Laurel and Sylvia who prove to be the real detectives here, the hard-boiled “dicks” uncovering Dix’s secrets, while Dix himself is the threat, the contaminant. The femme fatale turns out to be an homme, leading us to wonder if, perhaps, he always was.

In so doing, Hughes doesn’t merely overturn a genre. She also presciently dissects a cultural movement that is just getting under way: as she was writing In a Lonely Place, critics were beginning to talk about what they called film noir, a dark, fatalistic cycle of movies that emerged as the war ended, many of which were adaptations of hard-boiled novels of the prior decade. The psychological richness of the movies made them stand out to French critics, who would come to view them as a response to the traumas of the war. But it would not be until decades later that film critics and scholars would pinpoint what Hughes understood implicitly: how such trauma connects to gender and a dangerously beset masculinity—and how it can explode into sexual violence.

In recent decades, the prevailing theory is that noir emerged from a cultural crisis following World War II. Returning soldiers came home to a changed world where the girls next door they left behind became the women who took their jobs and (potentially) their agency. The result was a dark current of books and films about men facing a world over which they have no control. The system—organized crime, police, government, fate, all of the above—is out to get them, but it usually takes the form of a woman. And whether it’s Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis (Double Indemnity) or Jane Greer’s Kathie (Out of the Past) or Ava Gardner’s Kitty (The Killers), women are revealed to be duplicitous, treacherous, annihilating.

This is certainly Dix’s view. “They were all alike, cheats, liars, whores,” he reflects. “Even the pious ones were only waiting for a chance to cheat and lie and whore.” Hughes’s trick, however, is to situate the narrative impulses that drive noir in the mind of a man whom she is painting, inch by inch, as a violent and mentally ill criminal. With each passing chapter, we come to doubt or utterly reject Dix’s characterizations of both others and himself. For instance, the moment Dix sees the life his wartime buddy Brub, now a cop, has made for himself—home, hearth, and domesticity embodied in his new wife, Sylvia—he feels a rage he cannot understand or control. Brub, to Dix, has been “made different by being chained to a woman.” Pussy-whipped. The warm, homosocial world of the war is gone forever and in its place is only isolation and paranoia. In the expressionistic world of film noir, such paranoia is justified and universal. For Hughes, however, it is specific, personal, unglamorous, ugly, even ridiculous. By the novel’s final stretch, an increasingly out-of-control Dix determines that the cleaning lady and her “hideous siren” of a vacuum cleaner are out to get him.

Likewise, we increasingly doubt Dix’s insistence on Laurel’s treachery. “He’d known what she was the first time he’d looked at her,” he asserts. “Known he couldn’t trust her … Known he couldn’t hurt her and she couldn’t hurt him. Because neither of them gave a damn about anyone or anything except their own skins.” It is telling that the woman he repeatedly frames as a femme fatale is also the person with whom he most identifies. “I knew you before I ever saw you,” he tells her soon after they meet. It seems only right, as it is Dix who is the true shape-shifter, the masquerader, the fatal combination of sex and death. He is the one who seeks entry to Laurel’s life, her home, the one who stalks women, who weeps over them, who falls in love too easily, too fast as he does with Laurel. He is his own femme fatale, the author of his own doom.

But Sylvia and Laurel refuse to let him be their homme fatal. As Dix’s paranoia heightens, he imagines both Laurel and Sylvia encircling him, and their power to see and see through him as nearly godlike. The paranoia is, in this case, apt. They are watching him and do see through him. In the ultimate role reversal, Hughes’s women are the heroes and it is they who must contain Dix’s poisonous masculinity. They are the detectives “snooping” and “meddling” in order to stop the very real, very small, frequently teary Dix from turning his personal fears of inadequacy and impotence into bloody acts of gendered violence.

And the triumph is theirs. Hughes insists on it. In its original review of In a Lonely Place, Kirkus Reviews called it “hard, holding.” Hughes, like her two female heroes, remains cold-eyed and incisive, rational and effectual. It is the men who collapse, who wilt, who fall to pieces. In the novel’s final impassioned moments, it is the policeman Brub who “crie[s] out in agony” and the “hero” Dix who bursts wildly into tears. And it is Sylvia, the good girl, who calls out, her voice not hysterical but “bell clear.” “It worked,” she says, triumphant. “It worked!”


Megan Abbott is the author of eight novels, including The FeverYou Will Know Me, and the Edgar Award–winning Queenpin. She is also the author of The Street Was Mine, a study of hard-boiled fiction and film noir and the editor of A Hell of a Woman, a female crime-fiction anthology. This essay is excerpted from the New York Review Books’ forthcoming reissue of In a Lonely Place.

On August 16, at the Mysterious Bookstore, Abbott and Sarah Weinman will read from In a Lonely Place and discuss Hughes’s groundbreaking career as a crime writer.