Her Los Angeles novels capture a hum of the postwar, poised-for-boom city that is still evident — not only the apartment complexes with their contradictory promises of privacy and community and the pools where you "never saw anybody swimming," but the seedy neighborhoods of Westlake and Bunker Hill, where a man lands when he doesn’t know better, or doesn’t want to be observed. But her view of the city’s pretensions is affectionate as well. "This was small-town in a big town, kid bands, stream upon stream of kid bands with high-stepping girls twirling batons and twisting brief satin skirts," she writes of the annual Hollywood Christmas parade in her wall-of-mirrors spy thriller The Davidian Report. "This was Western, with silver-decked palominos and cowboys in silver studden chaps, with trick riders and proud horseflesh and the children yelling for more."
Most people know Hughes’ In a Lonely Place from Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame (a woman who speaks volumes by barely moving: a lift of an eyelash here, a quiver of a lip there), it’s part of the classic noir canon that casts screenwriters as tortured Everymen, caught in the ever-tightening Hollywood vise whose jaws are lucre and hackwork. In Hughes’ novel, however, Dix Steele is a writer in name only, a social grifter who knows that doors open to a good-looking young man with literary pretensions, and that once they do he’ll "get a chance to pick off the outer leaves of dough." At times, it even seems that Hughes is trying to prick some of noir’s pretensions. "I write books, lady," Steele replies witheringly to his neighbor, the actress Laurel Gray, who asks if he’s trying to break into pictures. Of course, the key difference between novel and movie is that where both men are uncomfortable mixtures of cool calculation and ungovernable rage, Bogart’s Steele is merely a likely suspect. Hughes’ is a killer.
In many of Hughes’ dozen or so novels, the suspense is spy-oriented and politically tinged — variously anti-Nazi, anti-Communist — including 1942’s The Fallen Sparrow, which The New York Times praised for its ambitious intricacy, and which Hughes dedicated to "Eric Ambler, 2nd Lieutenant, Royal Artillery, somewhere in England, because he has no book this year." Hughes’ patriotism can be as neon intense as her prose; indeed, she might be described as noir’s own Ayn Rand. Hughes’ social liberalism is equally flamboyant. At the height of the civil rights movement, she wrote The Expendable Man, whose Kafkaesque plot hinges on the reader not realizing that the doctor protagonist is black.
Histories of noir tend to divide the genre into heyday (the 1930s and ’40s) and second wave (the 1960s and ’80s), which leaves what might be called a white hole where the 1950s should be. For Mike Davis, who in City of Quartz describes noir’s birth in terms of a kind of political astrology, envisioning a "fantastic convergence of American ‘tough-guy’ realism, Weimar Expressionism and existentialized Marxism," the dearth of work in the ’50s has everything to do with the Red-baiting that occupied Hollywood during that retrograde decade. Clearly, then, it wasn’t only Hughes’ gender that made her a square peg. Her portrayal of the Party as a nest of double-dealing vipers (in The Davidian Report) was both anti-authoritarian and politically incorrect — an uncomfortably anomalous position in the polarized Hollywood of 1952. At the time of her death, in Oregon in 1993, Hughes was still uncherished by the city she registered so well: Her obituaries appeared in the Times of both New York and London, but not Los Angeles’.
Despite the 11-year difference in their birthdates, Armstrong, Hughes and Millar were all born on a kind of cultural cusp. In the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century, modernity in the shape of telephones and gramophones and cars and cinema was definitely in the picture. (And coming soon, votes for women.) And though the downside of all that movement of people and ideas would arrive in steady increments as the three women came of age — gas-damaged soldiers, Spanish influenza, gangland violence, the Depression — they seem to share a certain sense of entitlement with other women of that period. They were children of a new era; girls with new prospects.
Entitlement, in these authors’ cases, was underscored by education — though "entitlement" connotes something more assuming and masculine. There was, rather, a well-mannered certainty in their brisk, no-nonsense output of books and babies. The story told in various biographies of Margaret Millar’s husband — the noir-in-his-own-right detective novelist Ross MacDonald (real name: Kenneth Millar) — has the 25-year-old Margaret, married a little over two years and the mother of a toddler, confined to bed with a heart ailment in September 1940. After two weeks of reading detective stories, she decides to write her own, and The Invisible Worm is published the following year, and numbers among its fans the poet W.H. Auden.
Kitchener, Ontario, where Millar was born Margaret Sturm, sits on a roughly triangular scrap of Canada in the midst of the Great Lakes. Although she dropped out of college to marry (and support her husband in his graduate studies), her secondary education had been sufficiently thorough to allow her to read Thucydides in the original Greek. And the move to California was her choice. Having waved Kenneth off to war from the naval base in San Diego, the novelist and her small daughter were returning to Canada by train when, the story goes, Margaret saw Santa Barbara out the window, disembarked and took a house. Except for brief interludes the Millars remained there, writing, for the rest of their lives.