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George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

In a Lonely Place

cover image By: Hughes, Dorothy B. (female)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (587)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 275: PS3515 .U268 I5 1949
Contributor: D. Bogenschutz, J. Vourgourakis


Era: 1940s Author as on Cover: Dorothy B. Hughes Geographic Locale: Los Angeles, California Date of Publication: 1949  |  Original Date: 1947 Setting: urban; post World War II; residential, with forays to local beach and woods Motives: rape, murder

Plot Summary

Shortly after the end of World War II, Dix Steele comes to Los Angeles under the guise of writing a crime novel. He lives in the apartment of and uses the credit of one of his wealthy college buddies who is presumably away in Rio (we later learn that Dix has killed him). About once a month, Dix is overcome by rage and depression, which he assuages by raping and killing women. At the beginning of the novel, he looks up his old war buddy, Brub Nicolai, who happens to have become a police detective. Dix socializes with Brub and his wife Sylvia in order to keep abreast of the L.A.P.D.'s investigation. Dix falls in love with Laurel Gray, a fiery redhead who lives in his apartment building. She is a very independent woman, and frustrates Dix's desire to live "happily ever after" with her. Dix oscillates between a desire for true love and happiness, and a raging hatred of humanity and its social codes. The reader slowly learns about Dix's inner psychology and his past, including his obsessed love for a woman in London which led him to strangle her and begin a spree of murders in Europe and the U.S. The novel builds to a crescendo with Dix spiraling into insanity, and Sylvia luring Dix into a trap where he tries to strangle her and then confesses to his crimes.

Major Characters

Dickson Steele "Dix" adult male, from the East coast, pretends to be a writer, nephew and heir of a self-made industrialist. Attended Princeton, but his uncle made him work his way through. Just returned from Europe where he served as a successful fighter pilot during World War II; his uncle has grudgingly agreed to support him for one year while Dix supposedly writes a novel

Brub Nicolai adult male, son of a wealthy and well-known family from Los Angeles; an old war buddy of Dix. He has been married for a year to Sylvia; police detective

Sylvia Nicolai adult female, Brub's wife. We do not learn much about Sylvia's past; late in the novel she is referred to by her husband as a psychologist, but it is unclear if she worked as one before her marriage, or if she studied psychology in college

Laurel Gray adult female, divorce of a wealthy man but expresses her hatred for rich men, so one might assume she is from a middle to lower class background. She becomes Dix's lover. Once married to the son of a wealthy Los Angeles family, and is either divorced or in the process of obtaining a divorce and has received a sizable settlement

Mel Terris adult male, a wealthy college pal of Dix. He is a drunk.

Betsy Banning adult female, Los Angeles socialite and victim

Brucie adult female, an old flame of Dix during the War from London; Dix's first victim

Captain Lochner adult male, head detective in the L.A.P.D.

Level of Violence

Dix rapes and strangles several women to death. He is also responsible for the disappearance of Mel Terris and the murder of Brucie in London, and presumably several other strangler cases on the East coast and in Europe. None of the violence is explicitly depicted, though the mode of killing is described. Dix rapes all of his victims except Betsy Banning. She is from an upper-class family, and it is remarked in the novel that her father and her fiance are relieved that at least she was not raped.


at the beginning of the novel there are several very subtle stereotypically homosexual undertones. Dix is a woman-hater, and reminisces about times past with Brub Nicolai that verge on the erotic. A particular oceanside bar, well known to this day as one of the oldest gay bars in Los Angeles, is used as a setting when Dix first calls Brub. The bar, the S.S. Friendship, is not named, but is described in enough detail that any Los Angelino would know the bar.

Gender Roles

women are the object of Dix's murderous rage. He views sexy women as possible lovers or victims, and rudely dismisses older or unattractive women. Sylvia and Laurel are contrasted in the novel: Sylvia is the smart, icy blonde while Laurel is a voluptuous, fiery redhead. Dix often uses the comparison to devalue Sylvia and to romanticize his relationship with Laurel. Brub feels an obligation to protect his wife from crime, and is said to have infected her with his own fear of her becoming a victim. In the end, though, it is Sylvia who lures Dix into a trap, but she then runs into her husband's arms and he takes over.


a "colored man, whiter of skin than the beach-brown guests" plays the part of a waiter at Brub and Sylvia's club, and the gardeners at Dix's apartment building are described as Mexican.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

Mel Terris is a rich drunk, as was Laurel's ex-husband. Their drunkenness is used to signify their decadence. Cocktails are constantly being consumed in a social manner by all the characters throughout the novel. It is alluded to that Dix was a heavy drinker during the War, and that he and Brub would go out in London and drink together quite often.

Law Enforcement

Brub is a police detective. He is very idealistic about his job and gets extremely angry at his inability to solve the strangler cases. Dix amuses himself by socializing with Brub and talking about the case. He also gets a thrill from going down to the police station and getting a tour of one of the murder scenes under the guise that he is writing a crime novel. The police are depicted as hard-working and honest. Captain Lochner is a worn-down but smart detective who figures Dix as the murderer early on.

Subject Headings

Strangling/ California (Los Angeles)/ Rape/ Detectives/ Murder/ Mental Illness/ Serial Murderers

Psychological Elements

this is a psychological thriller written in the third person but mostly through the mind of the killer - Dix. The reader is gradually exposed to the various facts of the case, and to the histories of the characters involved. The pacing of the novel slowly builds to a climactic ending where we are taken through the downward spiral of Dix's insanity. Dix cannot stand particular noises like the buzz of his electric razor, and toward the end of the novel, we witness Dix's insanity progress as he becomes plagued by the methodical clipping of the gardeners working outside of his building. Dix is a psychopathic killer and we slowly come to know many of his pathologies. The novel opens with Dix comparing the thrill of murder to the thrill of flying a bomber. He has illusions of grandeur and an underlying hatred of humanity that is most violently directed against women. His wartime sweetheart marries someone else, triggering a murderous rage against her and setting him on a rampage of murder.

Film Adaptations

In a Lonely Place, 1950, Columbia