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The Deeply Unsettling Noir of Dorothy B. Hughes

10 August 2019

From CrimeReads:

Suspense, mystery, and thrills are often celebrated in the annals of crime fiction, but you don’t hear too much about dread. Maybe it’s just too difficult to capture, difficult to describe, a state of being you know has settled onto you as the pages flip but how it was brought about, nobody can quite say. If there’s ever been a writer, in crime fiction or any other literature, who surpassed Dorothy B. Hughes for conjuring up that terrible, ineffable sense of dread, I’ve yet to come across them.

Hughes was born on August 10th, 1904, in Kansas City, Missouri. She trained up as a journalist, bouncing around the country and grad schools while writing poetry on the side, then finally turned to mystery fiction. Eric Ambler and Graham Greene were her first great inspirations, and in her early novels especially you see their influence, the chiseled sentences and taut moral conundrums spiraling out into near chaos. The Fallen Sparrow, published in 1942 and adapted for the screen the following year, was Hughes’s breakout success, and in 1947, In a Lonely Place would cement her place in the pantheon of crime fiction.

. . . .

Nobody was harder than Hughes, when you got right down to it. Her novels have a veneer of everyday normalcy, a certain middle-class elegance, even. But danger—crime, guilt, desperation, and despair—finds its way into the lives of her characters and slowly gnaws away at their inadequate defenses as the world around them begins to melt away and all they’re left with is an uncanny, unforgiving darkness. Reading a Dorothy B. Hughes novel is the kind of transformative experience all readers are after.

In 1952, she abruptly left off fiction and didn’t return for over a decade. In the meantime she continued her criticism, but life carried on around her, and she said she lacked the “tranquility” required for her writing. It’s an odd choice of words, a telling choice, since she ranks among the most deeply disquieting authors ever to put pen to paper. She would return once more, with the 1963 novel, The Expendable Man, as disturbing and insightful as any she ever wrote. She lived another thirty years and went on writing criticism and the occasional nonfiction, but the novels were done and gone.

. . . .

“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 an 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.”

In a Lonely Place (1947)

“He wanted to know about her. But he couldn’t ask questions, not open questions. She was like him; she’d lie.”

In a Lonely Place (1947)

“She carried her head like a lady and her body like a snake.”

― Dread Journey (1945)

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One Comments to “The Deeply Unsettling Noir of Dorothy B. Hughes”

  1. The Kindle version of *In a Lonely Place* is $12.99. It will have to wait until I am flush.

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