LURID: May Gray — In A Lonely Place
Fear was the fog, creeping about you, winding its tendrils about you, seeping into your pores and flesh and bone. Fear was a girl whispering a word over and over again, a small word you refused to hear although the whisper was a scream in your ears, a dreadful scream you could never forget. You heard it over and over and again and the fog was a ripe red veil you could not tear away from your eyes.
In Los Angeles, fog is sunshine‘s nemesis. For more than a century, the city has sold itself to tourists and potential residents as home of “sunkist skies of glory”, but that’s a lie. The billboards don’t mention how the sun disappears around this time of year in the “Land of Eternal Spring”, hidden from view behind a thick layer of water droplets swirling in from the sea, a phenomenon known as May Gray. Then, June Gloom is followed by No Sky July and, in a particularly damp year, Fogust. The marine layer usually burns away by early afternoon revealing our beloved blue skies, but when twilight drops the temperature, the moisture creeps back inland and begins the offensive all over again.
The cycle of sunshine and fog is central to noir. The high contrast genre centers on incandescent blondes engulfed by moral pea-soupers, often of their own creating. In the 1940s, as Angeleno filmmakers and writers began to define the noir narrative, the fog carried an additional, deadly load. Low atmospheric pressure and the moisture in the air weighed down particulate pollution belching from oil refineries, factories, and the tailpipes of the city’s main fetish — the motor car. The resultant miasma was trapped between the sea and the hills of the Los Angeles basin with nowhere to drift but into locals’ lungs. No one knows how many were poisoned before federal and state governments began to regulate air pollution, with the Clean Air Act of 1967. Fog killed. The 1948 Donora disaster sickened half the Pennsylvania town’s 14K population and left 20 dead. London’s Great Smog of 1952 choked and blinded the city for five days and killed an estimated 12,000.
From the opening sentence, a homicidal haze permeates Dorothy B. Hughes’ noir masterpiece, In A Lonely Place. The narrator, Dix Steele, regards Santa Monica beach, its usual picture postcard essence transformed by the saturated dark. The fog serves as his accomplice, lifting itself “like gauzy veils to touch his face”, evoking wartime night flying and the “feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom” he has struggled to recapture in civilian life. But Steele is no longer a hero pilot. He’s a violent sexual predator using the reduced visibility to stalk a potential victim. “She couldn’t see him because he was no more than a figure in the fog.” While Steele relishes the “high foggy dark”, the lone young woman is fearful, picks up her pace, and the lights of an oncoming car mean she escapes the killer’s clutches — for now.
A lesser novelist might disappear Steele into the murk after such a teaser and approach her main cat-and-mouse story from a detective’s perspective. Instead, Hughes stays on Steele, exposing him in a white hot glare, and delivering an unflinching portrait of a mid-spree serial killer.
Dix Steele has the usual flaws of a noir anti-hero. He’s a handsome loner who drinks too much, has a weakness for unhappy women, and believes the pursuit of conventional happiness is for idiots. Outwardly, he’s doing just fine. He’s staked his claim on the sunny spots in life using superficial charm. At Princeton, he made himself indispensable to a feckless fellow student, leveraging the connection for clothing, contacts, and cash handouts. As a fighter pilot, he thrived on mess hall admiration. He’s able to ride his comrades’ goodwill into postwar respectability and lands in a pal’s West Hollywood bungalow, expenses paid by his uncle for a year while he — supposedly—writes his magnum opus. A clear blue sky existence.
Mist already creeps through the hollows, however. Steele's interior monologue stutters in significant places. He presents the symptoms collectively known as brain fog: memory lapses, inability to focus, poor concentration, a lack of clarity about his situation. Cheerful, oft-repeated lies paper over some of the cracks, like the whereabouts of the apartment-lending pal (“He’s in South America”). Denial takes care of others: his anguish at learning of his first victim’s murder overwhelms him, as he’s repressed his guilt for so long he’s bought into his own innocence. Then there’s his bubble of delusion, the complex psychological defense system that convinces him he’s smarter than the cops, that he’s still winning, even as the net closes. Steele’s delusion sustains him for so long because it’s shared. Although he thinks he’s “alone in his lonely place”, he’s not. There’s a whole brotherhood of the damned trapped in the fog alongside him.
Countless damaged veterans prowled the dive bars, dark alleys, and misty canyons of postwar Los Angeles, seeking respite from what they’d seen and done in action. Like Steele, they’re adrift, their moral compass fractured:
Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea. Lost in a lonely place. And the red knots tightened in his brain.
Their weapons-grade toxic masculinity meant they’d rather slam another shot of whiskey than admit to an ounce of emotional pain. Therapy was not an option. Some clawed their own way back to the sunlight, others were lost in the clouds forever. Hughes draws a clinical contrast between Steele and his squadron-mate, Brub, who’s also living in LA. Brub and Steele flew missions together in Europe but, psychologically, only one of them made it back to base.
Long before Hare's PCL-R Checklist, before psychological studies explored why cops and criminals are two sides of the same psychopathic coin, Hughes understood that certain individuals “break bad” when exposed to violence, while others emerge battered, but essentially whole. Brub clings to his heroic values, despite his doubts about combat ethics:
"I hated it then, the callous way we’d sit around and map out our plans to kill people. People who didn’t want to die any more than we wanted to die. And we’d come back afterwards and talk it over, check how many we’d got that night. As if we’d been killing ants, not men.” His eyes were intense.
Brub swaps his USAAF allegiance to the Beverly Hills Police Department, for the benefit of his as-yet-unborn children (“I guess that’s why I’m a policeman. To help make one little corner of the world a safer place.”) Meanwhile, Steele surrenders to his dark triad, “his itch for the chase”. “To hell with happiness,” he muses. “More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”
Candy means nothing. Women sate Steele’s hunger — when he strangles them and tosses their bodies from his moving car, like a cigarette butt. As his victims pile up, the wartime buddies position themselves for an almost-conventional noir cat-and-mouse. From the outset, the reader knows Steele is the killer, and there are strong hints that Brub knows it too, but can’t acknowledge the awful truth. How could he, when they’re both lifelong members of the genial, backslapping, sports-jacketed "our white boys in blue club"? Surely the stranger he’s pursuing through the fog is some kind of monster, not the charismatic old chum who’s equally at ease lunching with Brub and his fellow cops in Beverly Hills, or sliding into a seat alongside Sylvia, Brub’s new wife, for supper? Steele and Brub are so alike, Brub even invites Steele to help him examine the scene of the latest body dump, and to discuss the psyche of the murderer. Comrades once and forever.
Brub can’t see Steele for what he is, because he’s looking at his mirror image: white, male, middle class, urbane, an ace with an eye for the ladies. Brub believes he’s inherently one of the good guys, so surely Steele must be too? It takes a woman, Sylvia, to pierce the fog created by Steele’s bonhomie. Instinct tells her to be afraid of him. While he walks and talks like her husband, he is fundamentally a different creature. Her fear makes her bold. When she finally confronts Steele, she tells him outright:
From the beginning I knew there was something wrong with you. From the first night you walked into our living room and looked at me, I knew there was something wrong. Something terribly wrong.
Sylvia’s insight isn’t unusual. Angeleno women of the time needed to apply similarly needle-sharp instincts to every man they met. Was responding to the guy smiling at them in the diner, at the bus stop, from the next car at the drive-in, the right call or terribly wrong? A lapse in character judgment could mean death. Too many jaded men played flirtation as a cruel game, a way of masking that they shared Steele's take on women as:
...all alike, cheats, liars, whores. Even the pious ones were only waiting for a chance to cheat and lie and whore. He’d proved it, over and over again. There wasn’t a decent one among them.
Steele suggests women “ought to be beaten like a rug” for their relentless duplicity. His views align with the grim misogyny on display in newspaper headlines of the time. A grotesque parade of female victims, from Ora Murray, dumped at Fox Hills Golf Course in 1943, to Jean Spangler, last seen in Griffith Park in 1949, marked the prevailing winds of male rage. Although various cops, armchair detectives and journalists tried to link the string of murders to the same killer, the Werewolf, the only thread that ties them together is relentless hatred of women. That leaves an almost infinite list of suspects. No woman was safe, heiress (Georgette Bauerdorf) or itinerant (Naomi Cook), mother of three (Dorothy Montgomery) or schoolgirl (Lillian Dominguez). To this day, no one has ever been brought to justice for the series of violent femicides.
1947 was also the year of the Black Dahlia, whose mutilated corpse sparked a circulation war among local newspapers. Although Hughes takes her readers deep inside Steele’s head, there’s no need to go into the practical details of his crimes. Her readers had already read them, over and over again, at the breakfast table and on the evening commute, in the salacious column inches expended over the bodies of Elizabeth Short (January 15), Jeanne French (February 10), Evelyn Winters (March 12), Laura Trelstad (May 11) and Rosenda Mondragon (July 8). Steele himself eagerly awaits the arrival of the morning and evening editions on his doorstep. The lurid news reports clarify his foggy recall of his atrocities of the night before. As always with Los Angeles noir, art imitates life imitating art.
Yet In A Lonely Place runs counter to the zeitgeist and is ultimately a story about women who defy victimization. When Steele first pins his neighbor, Laurel Gray, with his male gaze, he casts her as his femme fatale. She’s perfect for the role: a stunning redhead, licking the wounds of a broken marriage, just vulnerable and needy enough to succumb to Steele’s predatory charm. She's the object of his redemption fantasies, The One who keeps him so busy in his own bed he doesn’t feel the need to go out hunting in the fog. Steele dreams about the two of them packing their bags, escaping to the East Coast, leaving the confusion and the guilt and the killing behind.
But Laurel is not his object. She’s a clear-sighted survivor who knows her liaison with Steele is fraught with peril — that’s what makes the sex so electric— but she has no intention of meeting a tragic end at his hands. Fog blocks the light in all directions. Steele’s obscured view means he doesn’t see her disbelief of his account of Mel Terriss’s whereabouts, nor her whispered conversations with Sylvia, nor does he register that his passion is unrequited. When she vanishes into the gray, he’s sideswiped, furious and impotent — except in one crucial way. “When she came back, he’d be waiting. He’d end it his way, the only way that meant a thing was finished.”
Far too many men ended things their way in 1940s Los Angeles — and still do. Every day in the USA, at least three women die by the hands of angry men. Even though we’ve learned much about the forces that drive Steele and his brothers in harm since In A Lonely Place was published in 1947—his dark triad of personality traits, his combat-induced PTSD, misogyny, and toxic masculinity—we’ve still not heeded Hughes’ cautionary tale.
Her fiction offers a fix for the problem of gender violence. At the conclusion of In A Lonely Place, sunshine burns away the fog. Steele will kill no more innocent women. It’s fitting that his last casualty is Brub, delusion shattered, crying out in agony, “For God’s sake, why did you do it, Dix?” In noir, there’s rarely a straight answer to that question. In A Lonely Place is the rare exception. Steele did it, over and over, because he walks in clouds of complicity, surrounded by men who refuse to see him for who he is, perhaps because they share more of his dark anger than they care to admit. It takes Sylvia and Laurel’s insistence, their whisper network of two, their unfoggy female perspective, to expose him. Hughes’ final, clarion-clear message is one that’s only just beginning to be heard, three quarters of a century later: believe the women.
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