The Paris Review

The Origins of American Noir

Reading Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel In a Lonely Place for the first time is like finding the long-lost final piece to an enormous puzzle. Within its Spanish bungalows, its eucalyptus-scented shadows, you feel as though you’ve discovered a delicious and dark secret, a tantalizing page-turner with sneakily subversive undercurrents. While only intermittently in print for much of the last half century, its influence on crime fiction is unsung yet inescapable. From Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson to Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Harris, nearly every “serial killer” tale of the last seventy years bears its imprint—both in terms of its sleek, relentless style and its claustrophobic “mind of the criminal” perspective. But its larger influence derives from Hughes’s uncanny grasp of the connection between violence and misogyny and an embattled masculinity. And its importance extends beyond form or genre and into cultural mythos: the birth of American noir. 

Over the course of her career, Hughes wrote fourteen novels, most of them published between 1940 and 1952. She also reviewed crime fiction and wrote an award-winning critical biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, the (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. What truly sets her apart from most of her crime-fiction peers, however, is, as noted in Christine Smallwood’s Page-Turner blog post on Hughes’s final, superb novel, (1963), her abiding interest in the psychology of difference, in taking on the perspectives of those unlike herself: from street punks to political prisoners, from an African American doctor to a war refugee among the Tesuque Indians. And, in , a returning veteran.

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