This book is superb. While Jim Thompson’s later (1952) The Killer inside Me holds pride of place for many noir fans as an early dissection of a very bad man, Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 novel may be one of the finest ever written. It’s been eclipsed to a great extent by the popularity of the Nicholas Ray film, which is strikingly different. Humphrey Bogart plays Dix Steele and Gloria Grahame at her most radiant plays Laurel Gray. The changes made to the narrative in the film deserve a whole essay themselves, which I may be writing at some point in the nearish future (because I need to add to my to do list).
From the first pages we know we’re following the path of a serial killer; these days even your granny knows all about serial killers. Everyone has seen or at least knows about Silence of the Lambs (I won’t digress into the effect of labeling a film ‘thriller’ rather than ‘horror’…), but this novel offered insight into a killer that few had seen. It’s masterful. And riveting: you may not sympathise with this terrible man, but you will be completely fascinated by his attempts to pass for human.He understands human behaviour, he tries to ape it – and he tries not to kill but in the end he can’t really see how not to do what he feels compelled to do. How best to masquerade? He pretends to be a writer. Hughes has him name-check the masters: Chandler, Hammett, Gardner, Queen and Carr. “It should be a bestseller if you could combine all those,” his pal’s wife Sylvia tells him.
I have a dog-eared No Exit Press copy. There are so many passages that shine with crystalline perfection. Here are some:
They had happiness and happiness was so rare…More rare than precious things, jewels and myrrh. Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago, in the ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.
She wasn’t beautiful, her face was too narrow for beauty, but she was dynamite. He stood like a dolt, gawking at her.
He finished his drink. “I don’t like mornings either,” he said. “That’s why I’m a writer.”
Laurel’s eyes took stock of Brub in the same way they had taken stock of Dix on the first meeting. Thoroughly, boldly, despite Sylvia’s presence. It might be Laurel knew no better, it might be unconscious. The only way she knew how to look at a man.
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…
Hughes should be getting more hero worship: words like these should raise goosebumps with their uncanny grace.
See all the FFB choices at Patti Abbott’s blog.
You can watch the film online (no guarantees on quality).