Art by Paul Lee
How like the French, who understand that style is content, to have a word for it — noir, that gritty negative antidote to Southern California’s dreamy lusciousness. In the 65 years since James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, the novel often credited with having started the black ball rolling, noir, which developed in a hot symbiotic partnership between print and film, has become less a genre than a way of seeing.
"The first time he’d seen the patio, he hadn’t believed it. He hadn’t been long enough in Southern California to believe it. It wasn’t real; it was a stage set, a stagy stage set. In the center was the oblong blue pool. By day the pool was sky blue, it was tiled in that color, the water in it had to look that blue. By night it was moonlight blue. Two blue spotlights, one at either end of the balcony, made certain of that." — from In a Lonely Place.
The description is classic noir, almost excruciating in its elaboration, each physical detail as loaded with freight as a boxcar with oranges. Change a few pronouns and you can imagine a gumshoe muttering about a starlet’s seemingly innocent, elaborately made-up eyes. Then too, half a millimeter below the slick, sarcastic tone, there’s the question the genre asks about its surroundings as frequently as it does of the women who inhabit them. Is their beauty — land’s and women’s both — part of an elaborate intentional evil snare, or simply mindless happenstance?
What isn’t classic is the gender of its author, Dorothy B. Hughes.
David Fine’s Los Angeles in Fiction defines noir as "a regional fiction obsessively concerned with puncturing the bloated image of Southern California as the golden land of opportunity and the fresh start." The definition does not specifically exclude women; still, it is couched in terms that implicitly site those fictions in a public world of work and ambition — a world where women were, shall we say, underrepresented — rather than in the domestic sphere, which tends to be irreparably continuous, carrying its realities with it, like children and battered bureaus, from one fresh start to the next.
And yet, among the millions of women settling in California with their husbands and children in the ’40s and ’50s were three writers who cast a cool eye on their sunny surroundings: Hughes (1904– 1993), Margaret Millar (1915–1994) and Charlotte Armstrong (1905–1969). Many of their topics were far from noir’s canon, and yet in their constant registering of the region’s vaunted dichotomy between surface and substance, in their probing of the dark side of domesticity, in their simultaneous embrace and distrust of convention, they strike a sometimes familiar, sometimes eerily subversive note. Call it a feminization of the genre. Call it noire.
I arrived in Los Angeles a decade ago prepared to be enamored of Raymond Chandler’s "dark, almost quiet streets, almost clean streets." To my delight, nearly every drive yielded relics of the ’30s city that Chandler made vivid — markets that could be mistaken for haciendas, auto courts seemingly transplanted from New Hampshire, roof lines that couldn’t decide whether they were miming Chinese pagodas or Swiss chalets. Fading relics, to be sure, but all with their by-now-indelible implication of golden promise and dark doings.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the suburbanism even in the heart of the city — so many back yards, such gleaming supermarkets. These were visual hallmarks of my own 1950s post-Levittown childhood, and, as such, they seemed inextricably linked with moms in aprons, dads in hats, and pineapple never appearing on a plate without an accompanying piece of green pepper if it was dinner, or maraschino cherry if dessert. Linked, in other words, with a domestic view so stark and formulaic that it, too, might have been drawn from the cover of a paperback. Maybe I’d have found the view less unnerving if I hadn’t been a mom myself, going down the mean streets, but headed for the PTA. Instead, I suffered one of those perceptual disjunctions L.A. is famous for. I was thinking noir but living blanc.
What I needed was a way to read myself into the city, and I found it in Hughes’ snooty beachside broads and trashy, interloping dames — noir staples, to be sure, but her women don’t always turn out to be as lowdown, or as hopelessly bourgeois, as the men around them would like to think. I found it, too, in the dry shade of Millar’s old-growth gardens and in the sunny ranks of chiffon-colored bungalows in Armstrong’s west Wilshire, where even the familiar conventions of female mystery fiction — the largely housebound sphere, the very un-noirish appearance of children and grannies and down-to-earth women — darkened and shifted on their foundations.
Like so many of us who learn to love the West, they were each of them raised elsewhere. Dorothy Belle Hughes was born Dorothy Flanagan in Kansas City, Missouri. She took a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, did graduate work at Columbia and the University of New Mexico, wrote for newspapers in Albuquerque, New York City and Los Angeles, and taught at UCLA. Along the way she married Levi Hughes and raised three children. Not surprisingly, the settings of her books read like the stops on a transcontinental express: New York (The Delicate Ape, 1944), Texas (Johnnie, 1944), Phoenix (The Expendable Man, 1963), Santa Fe (Ride the Pink Horse, 1946; The Blackbirder, 1943), Los Angeles (In a Lonely Place, 1947; The Davidian Report, 1952). In fact, she set one novel, Dread Journey (1945), on a coast-to-coast train.