Dorothy B. Hughes’ Noir

From my bedroom window I could see her standing in the moonlight.  Alone, once again. It had become somewhat of a ritual and I wondered why.

Dorothy B. Hughes and I were friends since our days at the University of New Mexico. I was in Santa Fe to be part of the artists’ colony whereas Dorothy was there to become a poet. But the war had changed all of that.

By the beginning of the war, Dorothy was married to a wealthy businessman, had three children, and was still in Santa Fe. Dorothy hated Santa Fe–its flatness, its dust, its bad martinis. Sometimes we’d get together for coffee to have a chat but it was the bad martinis that could really get her talking. One night Dorothy babbled something about the two kinds of aliens. First there were those hovering over Alamogordo fearful that nuclear testing could disrupt the Earth’s orbit putting the stability of the entire solar system at risk. But the real aliens, she said, were misogynists who did their best to abduct your spirit and obliterate your sense of self. At the time I thought it was just the alcohol but, well, now I’m not so sure anymore.

New Mexico had become a smorgasbord of war related construction sites. It was splattered with prisoner of war and internment camps as well as military bases. New Mexicans had the highest number of volunteers into the military service as well as the highest number of casualties. The presence of war was too overwhelming for me so I decided to leave Santa Fe and headed for a beach.

I was soaking up some sun in Veracruz drinking margaritas when I read about the spaceship crash at Roswell and immediately thought of Dorothy. It doesn’t matter if UFOs really exist. Because what I liked about Dorothy was her alternative way of thinking. In fact, Dorothy was no longer in Santa Fe but in Hollywood working as a screenwriter and had just published a book, In a Lonely Place. It was about Dix Steele, a wartime fighter pilot who, in the name of war, kills thousands of people without even wrinkling his shirt. The war over, Dix is existentially lost.  No longer in the role of a macho man, he can’t find anything to take the place of “flying wild” and of the extermination of lives that had made him a hero. Now in L.A., Dix is just one more jobless and aimless vet. To camouflage his nothingness, Dix claims to be a crime writer working on a new novel.  Instead he is living off his talent for exploiting others and with loans from his uncle.

At night Dix roams the streets of L.A. looking for something to placate the rage and the impotence within. His solution: becoming a psychopathic serial killer. Dix’s friendship with Brub, the LAPD detective working on the case, gives him the chance to deviate suspicions from him. Brub never suspects Dix and, in the end, it’s two women who prove to be the real detectives: Laurel, Dix’s girlfriend, and Syliva, Brub’s wife. Thanks to observation and intuition, they expose Dix for what he really is. Because these two women had no intention of being abducted.

WWII had sent men to the front leaving women to replace them in the job industry. No longer segregated at home but out earning a living, these women now experienced an independence they’d never known before. Then the soldiers came home and found themselves with no work and no money. Women now occupied roles men once considered to be their own leaving men feeling impotent and busting with misogynist rage.

At this time pulp fiction provided escapist literature to entertain the masses. One of the most popular forms was the noir, a crime genre focused on the dark underbelly of the American dream. In a typical noir, women with their penetrating gaze and provocative bodies were not to be trusted as they were liars, cheats, and whores. In order for men to regain control, these women must be obliterated.

But In a Lonely Place is actually a feminist book disguised as a noir. As readers, we’re given a sneak peek into the killer’s contorted, claustrophobic mind. Dorothy exposes misogyny for what it is and how trauma and a fragile masculinity can explode into violence and a breakdown in perception. In a typical noir, the protagonist is always a man and it is always the man who is able to arrive at a solution. Dorothy lets a man be the protagonist but only to expose him for the chauvinist he really is. In the end, men are outsmarted by women.

War modifies women, too.

During WWI, the need for British soldiers required women to replace men in the factories. Women thus discovered that they were as qualified as men.

In 1914, the same year Agatha married Archie Christie, she also volunteered as a nurse for the Red Cross. It was her job to clean up after amputations and throw the severed limbs into the furnace. This could explain why there is little blood in Agatha’s novels.

At this time, Agatha also began writing crime novels. She became more successful as a writer than as a wife. In 1926, after learning of her husband’s betrayal, she disappeared for 11 days making front page headlines (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hired a medium to search for her). Unable to identify with the male mentality, the following year she created Miss Jane Marple, an elderly spinster living in the small village of St. Mary Mead. Instead of minimizing Miss Marple’s spinster stereotype, Agatha enhances it. Because no one, especially a man, takes a spinster seriously. Ignored and unnoticed, Miss Marple tranquilly observes the others. She likes to observe how the villagers interrelate one with the other and how these interrelations can lead to murder. In fact, it’s because of her spinster qualities of being nosey and gossipy that permit her to observe up close. Miss Marple herself says that human nature is much the same everywhere but living in a village is like looking at people with a magnifying glass.

Observation refines her intuition permitting her, and not the male detectives, to solve a crime. Miss Marple is not interested in the act of killing per se. She simply sees murder as an expedient to explore the human psychology. And being elderly is also a plus because, says Miss Marple, “Clever young men know so little of life.”

Lesson learned.

Dorothy used an encrypted feminism. In a typically male genre, that of the noir, Dorothy has women and not men come up with the solution.

Miss Marple used a red herring feminism. She let people believe that she’s old and muddle headed because their misinterpretation of her gives her power.

A feminist is simply someone who believes that one sex should not dominate the other and that the roles of the sexes should be complimentary, equal even if not the same.

There is biodiversity even among feminists. To be a feminist doesn’t necessarily mean shaking your fist in the air and yelling Down with Patriarchy! Like Miss Marple, one can nudge but not push.


(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

Bibliography: Marynia F. Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg, Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947)

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1 Response to Dorothy B. Hughes’ Noir

  1. Pingback: Was Watson a Woman? | The Narrative Within

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