Dix Steele is an WWII veteran, sub-letting an apartment in Los Angeles, living off the paltry cheques sent by his rich uncle whilst writing a crime novel. At least that’s his story. In reality he is – and I’m giving nothing away here, because the author makes it very clear in the first 3 pages – a killer. The serial strangler of the lone women he picks off one at a time at roughly monthly intervals.
Written from Dix Steele’s POV, this is no whoduunit or howdunnit. It is a whydunnit of sorts. The answer comes in the final sentence, so no spoilers here. Even then it’s more of a will he really get away with it? For Dix Steele is more intelligent than anyone he knows, and that includes Brub Nicolai, his former WWII comrade, now turned detective, Brub’s wife, Sylvia, a psychologist, now housewife, and Laurel Gray, the ambitious redhead, who becomes Dix’s squeeze. He is a ladykiller in both senses of the word. Or so he thinks.
For Dix is delusional, and he underestimates everyone around him. It is hard to pinpoint the mistakes that give him away, for he is forever congratulating himself about his control, his never faltering in tricky moments. These begin almost as soon as he resurrects his friendship with Brub. (That’s the mistake he does admit – he should have stayed alone, in his lonely place.) When he learns of Brub’s new profession, he takes it as a dare. How close to the wind can he sail? Pretty close, he believes. In the name of research for his novel, he questions Brub about progress on the case and accompanies him to crime scenes. He completely dismisses the little grey man, who sometimes accompanies Brub. Turns out he is the Head of Homicide!
But Dix’s greatest miscalculation is that of the two women: Sylvia, the little hausfrau, waiting at home for her man, and Laurel, who at first appears as besotted as Dix, but has no intention of giving up her hard-won independence.. It doesn’t take her long to see through Dix’s facade and detect the underlying threat of violence and she retreats, not to her lonely place, but to her safe place.
Dix’s confidence is just that – a facade. He may believe himself powerful, particularly when seducing Laurel, but reality (such as the scene when he is scrabbling around trying to find all the pieces of a torn cheque) tells us otherwise. He may believe he is presenting an unperturbed front to all and sundry, but his habits (heavy drinking) and his hypersensitivity to noise of all kinds reveal a man on edge.
There is a lot more to be said about In A Lonely Place; the subverting of traditional roles in American Noir, the magnificent sense of place, of threat, the fog (oh how I love a novel with fog!) prescient acknowledgement of PTSD in war veterans. The lovely folk at the Backlisted Pod say it all here. I’ll keep it simple – Book 13 and the first 5-star read of 20 Books of Summer 2021.