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The Deeply Unsettling Noir of Dorothy B. Hughes

Celebrating the dark visions of literature's queen of noir.

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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. She took the genre seriously, reviewed it throughout her life, wrestled with its influence, icons, and legacies, and honed her own craft throughout the 1940s and into the early 50s, the heyday for the harder new mysteries coming out of America and transforming the literature. 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.

To mark the anniversary of her birth, we’ve collected here a selection of some of her finest, most unsettling lines. Together they offer up a glimpse of her dark world view, and they begin, but only begin, to capture that deep sense of dread that was such a trademark of Hughes’ fiction. Read on and rediscover one of the all-time great artists of noir.

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The Fleeting Nature of Happiness

“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)

“It’s harder to come back than it is to arrive.”

The Impossibility of Genuine Human Interaction

“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)

“How could a man ever be sure of any other man? This was the age of treachery, the age when the lie was made dogma, when evasion was a sanctified virtue and ignorance a sacrament. It was the age of words but the words no longer had meaning, they had subverted into the gibberish of the new jungle.”
The Davidian Report (1952)

“She carried her head like a lady and her body like a snake.”
Dread Journey (1945)

“He scraped through the dark sand to the center house, two stories, both pouring bands of light into the fog. There was warmth and gaiety within, through the downstairs window he could see young people gathered around a piano, their singing mocking the forces abroad on this cruel night. She was there, protected by happiness and song and the good. He was separated from her only by a sand yard and a dark fence, by a lighted window and by her protectors.

He stood there until he was trembling with pity and rage. Then he fled, but his flight was slow as the flight in a dream, impeded by the deep sand and the blurring hands of the fog. He fled from the goodness of that home, and his hatred for Laurel throttled his brain. If she had come back to him, he would not be shut out, an outcast in a strange, cold world.”
In a Lonely Place (1947)

The Importance of Starting the Day Off Right

He dressed quickly, not caring what he put on. He had no plan, only to get out of this room, to get away from the unremembered shape of his dreams.”
In a Lonely Place (1947)

“He finished his drink. ‘I don’t like mornings either,’ he said. “That’s why I’m a writer.”
In a Lonely Place (1947)

Potent Potables

“At eight the bar was emptied of all but those whose goal was alcoholism”
In a Lonely Place (1947)

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“Liquor is such a nice substitute for facing adult life.”


“They were one unto the other, a circle whirling evenly, effortlessly, endlessly. He knew beauty and the intensity of a dream and he was meshed in a womb he called happiness. He did not think: This must come to an end in time. A circle had no beginning or end; it existed. He did not allow thought to enter the hours that he waited for her, laved in memory of her presence. He seldom left the apartment in those days. In the outside world there was time; in time, there was impatience. Better to remain within the dream.”
In a Lonely Place (1947)

“No reason to feel nervous at night, not even at eleven thirty at night, in the heart of New York. Nothing ever happened to her kind of people; things happened to people living down those cross streets in old red bricks or old brownstones. Things threatened silver and gold dancers there in the Iridium Room across. But things didn’t happen to her or anyone she knew.”
The So Blue Marble (1940)

“Her name was Mildred Atkinson and she had led a very stupid life. Grade school, high school—Hollywood High but she was no beauty queen—business college and a job in an insurance office. She was twenty-six years old and she was a good girl, her parents sobbed. She played bridge with girl friends and she once taught a Sunday-school class. She didn’t have any particular gentleman friend, she went out with several. Not often, you could bet. The only exciting thing that had ever happened to her was to be raped and murdered. Even then she’d only been subbing for someone else.”
In a Lonely Place (1947)

“She hadn’t paid last week’s rent. Seven dollars must go for that; maybe she could eat on five this week, and then there was subway fare. One more of these seventeen dollars and no more. There wouldn’t be even this ugly room to which to return. She wondered what happened to girls in Manhattan who had no room, no money, no job. It was all right to read about sleeping on a bench in Central Park; it didn’t sound so dreadful, but reality was different stuff.”
― The Cross-Eyed Bear (1940)


“She was afraid. It wasn’t a tremble of fear. It was a dark hood hanging over her head. She was meant to die. That was why she was on the Chief speeding eastward. This was her bier.”
Dread Journey (1945)

“His eyes looked upon the Luger, upon its diminutive but dread companion. No, he wasn’t afraid. Neither morally nor physically. The man must die. You feared when you were on the defensive, feeling your way through the plasma of unknown terrors. There would be no fear when you were the stalker, not the stalked.”
― The Fallen Sparrow (1942)

“He’d always had a quickening of the heart when he crossed into Arizona and beheld the cactus country. This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaro standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.”
The Expendable Man (1963)

Death, and What Comes After

“She caught up her purse and she ran, ran as if she raced with Death, and as if Death were the fleeter of foot.”
Dread Journey (1945)

“Famine and War. War breeding destruction. The Horsemen of Chaos waiting their time. Madness. Hell. Once he hadn’t believed in hell. Once he hadn’t believed in a personal demoniac deity. But he’d seen men possessed. He knew powers of evil flogged the earth and powers of good weren’t strong enough to exorcise them. The powers of good, what had happened to them? Where was heaven? If there was hell, there must be heaven. There must be the balance.”

He said bitterly, “We have to die to get to heaven.”
Dread Journey (1945)

 Dwyer Murphy is the author of An Honest Living (Viking Books) and Editor-in-Chief of CrimeReads.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published August 9, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.