Brub said, “I won’t say that. Although I honestly don’t think he ever does escape. He has to live with himself. He’s caught there in that lonely place. And when he sees he can’t get away–” Brub shrugged. “Maybe suicide, or the nut house–I don’t know. But I don’t think there’s any escape.”
I was glad that the Afterword in the Feminist Press edition of Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place got right to the heart of the problem: “What feminist claims can be made for a novel that is narrated from the perspective of a serial rapist and killer of women?” I had been puzzling over this as I read the book, and my own initial answer was simpler than the one Lisa Maria Hogeland makes in her essay (though similar to it), and also less confident: the novel is told from that perspective, but it is never aligned with it, so we never make the mistake of rooting for Dix Steele. To a limited extent we understand him, perhaps, but unlike in morally much riskier and more complicated fiction (such as Adam Johnson’s disturbing and heartbreaking story “Dark Meadows”) we never sympathize with him. This point I’m pretty confident about–what I’m less sure about is whether that’s enough to make the novel in any sense a feminist one.
Hogeland’s argument (oversimplified) is that the result is a novel that is a powerful indictment of toxic masculinity, one that exposes the fundamental irrationality and violence of patriarchy as a system. Dix may be an extreme case, but, Hogeland rightly points out, over and over in the novel his normalcy is highlighted–the point is made repeatedly that the murderer looks ordinary, indistinguishable from other men. The strategy of showing that even “good” men belong to and benefit from an evil system is an old feminist one, and I think that’s a reasonably persuasive reading of the way Dix is characterized. It’s also true that the novel effectively prevents any shadow of blame from attaching to any of his victims, and, furthermore, that it mostly avoids sensationalizing their suffering and death.
Love, jealousy, and the need to stalk and kill are all knitted together here, and Hughes’s skill is that she does it so subtly, in a way that never flags it overtly as a critique, yet critique it is. Hughes takes us inside Dix’s misogyny in order to explicate how that misogyny is the very foundation of his heterosexual masculinity, and in order to critique the misogyny she depicts.
I said my answer to the “but how can this be feminist?” question wasn’t as confident as hers, and I think this is why: at least for me, on my first reading, In A Lonely Place seemed like a book we could interpret in that way, but also as one that could reasonably be experienced very differently–not as a celebration of violent misogyny (because it doesn’t take long for us to be perfectly clear that Dix is a dreadful, terrifying specimen), but as entertainment based (in a fairly familiar way) on violent misogyny. A lot of its suspense is built around the possibility of his next crime, for instance; every woman we meet we fear is a potential victim; there is the usual cat-and-mouse excitement around who knows what and when, or if, he will be caught. There are not, in fact, across the novel, any other men clearly placed on the spectrum of male aggression: sticking so closely and cleverly to his perspective ultimately makes it hard to see him as anything but exceptional, a lone wolf rather than a representative of systemic oppression.
Of course, that’s the artistic tightrope of unreliable narrators–which Dix very nearly is, so close is Hughes’s third-person point of view–as well as of any attempt to render the point of view of someone morally objectionable. I wonder if I would find the “it’s a cleverly disguised critique of itself” argument more overwhelmingly convincing if in fact Dix were the narrator, though I suppose that might only collapse even further the distinction between his twisted psyche and the social systems he works within. But (as I often argue about unreliable narrators, such as Stevens in The Remains of the Day, or for that matter much more blunt instruments such as any of Poe’s macabre personae) the success of unreliable narration depends on gradually developing an alternative version of the story that becomes every bit as clear as the one we are being overtly told: a unmistakable gap opens between the narrator’s theory of the facts and ours. I’m not saying there isn’t a gap between Dix’s story and ours, but are the alternatives as sophisticated as Hogeland suggests? Maybe it’s just because I’m new to In A Lonely Place (and because I also focus on critiques of masculinity when I read and teach other hard-boiled fiction, such as The Maltese Falcon) that it didn’t seem to up-end noir or hard-boiled conventions as much as all that.
Whether or not it’s a “feminist” novel, it’s definitely a stylish thriller, meaning not just the plot and but also the prose:
Fear wasn’t a jagged split of light cleaving you; fear wasn’t a cold fist in your entrails; fear wasn’t something you could face and demolish with your arrogance. 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 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 again and the fog was a ripe red veil you could not tear away from your eyes.
That’s good stuff, and chilling–and also, maybe, both taking and giving a bit too much pleasure in that poor girl’s terror.