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Not Lonely Now

Tisha M. Reichle on Dorothy B. Hughes
Los Angeles

What if you could travel back in time? Borrow the DeLorean from Doc Brown, and when the flux capacitor is flowing neon green, set the year: 1943. You would have to wait until two or three in the morning to be able to drive down Santa Monica Boulevard fast enough to activate time travel, but it would be worth it. Unless you are a young, unsuspecting woman out walking your dog or waiting at a bus stop, because for you, it is no longer safe. Dix Steele has returned to Los Angeles.

In a Lonely Place, by Dorothy B. Hughes, begins with a sinister tone as the protagonist contemplates the Pacific Ocean:

The fog lifting itself like gauzy veils … the ocean rolling endlessly … the pale waste of sand and dark restless waters … darkness closed around him and he swooped his hand through the restless fog. [1]

The location mirrors Dix Steele's own restlessness. Playing with darkness and light, Hughes follows the serial killer and his potential victim down the California Incline. Created in 1905, it extends approximately 1,400 feet from the intersection of Ocean and California avenues, at the top of the Pacific Palisades bluff, to Pacific Coast Highway (PCH/SR-1) at the base. It includes a 750 foot-long bridge that the City of Santa Monica and the California Department of Transportation are retrofitting in preparation for the next big earthquake; construction is scheduled to begin in summer 2013.

Steele walks the length of that incline focused intently on the sound of a young woman's steps and his own increasing heart rate. Initially, killing is not his intent, but as her pace quickens, so does his desire. He wants to instill fear in her first, and then move to the fatal part of his plan. But his efforts are thwarted by passing cars. Their headlights anger him. She crosses the street. Frustrated, he boards a Santa Monica Blue Bus with no concern about its destination. It cost him only a nickel.

Traveling throughout Los Angeles has changed dramatically in the 70 years since the book opens. Bus fare has increased from fifty cents to one dollar in the past few years, and getting from the beach to his apartment in Beverly Hills would take Dix Steele twice as long now.

Steele must kill because he is not meant to live in Los Angeles; his East Coast sensibilities are more suited to gloomy days and busy streets. For him, Los Angeles is a lonely place. He occupies his time with trips to the dry cleaner on Olympic Boulevard and lunch at a diner on Beverly Boulevard. It is possible he enjoyed his smoked turkey at Nate 'n Al's. Built in 1945, the Beverly Hills delicatessen has been a favorite of many celebrities and is still owned by the Mendelson family.

After breakfast there, I wandered the surrounding streets–Dayton to Rexford–towards the Beverly Hills Police Station and City Hall. New, elaborate curved ramps and staircases connect the Beverly Hills Library to BHPD Headquarters on the second floor. The neon turquoise and block turrets are reminiscent of the 1940s art deco style, but the technology used behind the glass doors would have processed trace DNA evidence from the crime scenes, and BHPD would have captured Dix Steele before his second victim surfaced. According to historian Marc Wannamaker, "As the 1930s were coming to an end, the Beverly Hills Police Department were without equal in the country" (Images in America: Beverly Hills 1930-2005, 19). Still, the string of murders reported in the daily paper should have made all women reconsider walking alone at night or waiting alone at any bus stop. Today in Los Angeles, most women are savvier than that, better equipped to avoid treacherous possibilities.

Historically, Dorothy B. Hughes and other feminist fiction writers were not given the same literary respect as the men who dominated the genre; they had to boldly enter the male realm of detective noir. At the same time that Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake, writers like Hughes, Valerie Taylor, and Vera Caspery were venturing into the sinister darkness where previously women could only be victims. Hughes takes control of the crime and twists each scene so that eventually, femme fatale Laurel Gray helps detectives confront the killer.

Until Dix meets Laurel Gray, his self-imposed solitude is driving him mad. She unnerves him. When he sees her enter his apartment complex,

He was stimulated by merely talking with her; she was a lure, even with that ghostly blue light coating her face. [56]

When she rings his doorbell later, "He didn't hurry. He walked with caution. The breath he took before setting his hand to the knob wasn't deliberate. Not until he flung open the door and heard the breath expelled did he realize he'd been holding it." [57] Their non-traditional courtship begins, and he fills her with lies about why he is living in a "friend's" apartment. He gains confidence as she feigns interest. He wants to parade her around the city and introduce her to his friends. He relishes her moments of jealousy until they interfere with his plans. His tension is exacerbated by a lack of funds. Laurel needs a man who can shower her with expensive gifts, and this enrages Dix further. His only solace, albeit temporary, is sitting at the beach. ̉He was there for a long time. 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." [170-171] But to truly find some inner peace, he must kill again. For the first time, he does not take all the necessary precautions to cover his crime.

Nonetheless, once his fury is satiated, he can enjoy the California sun and venture to the beach during daylight.

Relief bathed him, relief flowed gently, excitingly, over him and through him. … He didn't have to hurry, there was no hurry now, no hurry at all. [175]

He drives his nondescript coupe, still careful to avoid places where he might run into Brub Nicolai, his friend and police detective.

Today the spirit of Los Angeles Noir is kept alive by author Denise Hamilton's collections, as well as poetry and prose by famed L.A. authors Susan Straight, Gary Phillips, Hector Tobar, Suzanne Lummis, Naomi Hirahara, and Marsha de la O. Reading their work can help readers travel to an earlier Los Angeles without leaving home.

For this book and others like it, visit http://www.feministpress.org/books/fp-series/femmes-fatales. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York has reprinted the femme fatales–the best of women's writing in the classic pulp genres of the mid-20th century!

For 14 years, Tisha Marie Reichle has been teaching reading and writing to 150+ not-always-willing teenagers and struggles to find time for her own work. For 10 years, she has been writing and revising a novel about the Chicana/o Student Movement at UCLA. Her stories utilize the desert landscape of her childhood and the urban chaos of her adulthood. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Some of her writing has been published at Annotation Nation, The Splinter Generation, 34th Parallel, and Inlandia Journal.