July 26, 2021

pioneer visit to the mind of the murderer

1929 is considered the starting signal for the black genre with the publication of ‘Red Harvest’ by Dashiell Hammett. But it was not until the 1940s that it was consolidated, in part due to the success of the adaptations to the big screen of a good handful of works of fiction. That was the case with ‘In a lonely place’ by Dorothy B. Hughes, which achieved fame thanks to the adaptation of Nicholas Ray from 1950 with Humphrey Bogart Y Gloria Grahame. A brilliant film that has little to do with the original story of Hughes.

Dix Steele is a former World War II fighter jet pilot. He has fought like a hero, something that does little good on his return. Los Angeles no longer represents the country of the American dream that he knew, and there are not many ways to make a living. We are facing a story that delves into the trauma that lies in those who survive a conflict of these dimensions. The return home, the lack of income, the lack of employment. And even more so at a time when the construction of masculinity was so deeply linked to that role of supporter of the family economy. Dix survives due to donations from his Uncle Fergus, but finds that dependency infuriating.

Luckily he has his old partner Brub in Santa Monica. He has married Sylvia and is a police inspector. This friendship is very advantageous for Steele, since it makes them believe that he is writing a crime novel, in the style of Chandler, Hammett Y Gardner. You need information on how the investigation of a crime is carried out, what clues are those that guide you to one suspect or another. At that time, Brub is at the forefront of the search for the culprit in a series of murders of women in the area, something that Dix finds ideally suited to obtain first-hand material. And incidentally, to be aware of how much the police know. Because the person responsible for those crimes is Dix himself.

Decades before the conception of the term ‘serial killer’ and some years before the famous ‘The murderer inside me’ of Jim Thompson, Hughes it had already entered the mind of a serial criminal. Through false third-person narration, Dix narrates his frustrations and motivations in his own voice. His hatred of women, that he could not bear to submit to his scrutinizing gaze. He feels that they can see the darkness of his soul, and that is something that terrifies him.

Everything changes with the appearance of Laurel on the scene, a neighbor who makes him lose his mind. Hughes it completely reverses the gender roles that had been customary up to that point. It is he who depends on her, who waits every night sitting by the phone desperate to see her. He tries to convince himself that it is the other way around, that it is she who cannot live without him. The incessant doubts of the character, the fear that Laurel does not need him as much as he needs her, the constant waiting, are narrated in a masterful way by Hughes, which twists the protagonist’s psyche until it breaks.

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Those who still believe that at the dawn of the noir genre the only stories a writer had the ability to tell were those set in the English countryside with high society protagonists, should take a look at this novel. It has remained unpublished in Spanish (not in Catalan) until 2019. And there are still many to discover.

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