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.
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.
Not surprisingly, then, Millar is more closely identified with a home turf than either Hughes or Armstrong, with many of her books set in her fictional Santa Barbara, Santa Felicia (the name is apt in its ironic promise). And yet, since many of her best works, including The Cannibal Heart (1949), The Fiend (1964) and Banshee (1983) inhabit the circumscribed world of children, the landmarks that predominate are less city-specific than part of the generic, eucalyptus-scented landscape of California’s coastal suburbs, with their brushy canyons and vast manicured playgrounds, and all the edgy intersections of civilization and wilderness.
“He remembered it all now, the boarding kennels behind the scraggly pittosporum hedge and the grade school a few hundred yards to the south. He remembered the children taking the back way to school because it was shorter and more exciting, teetering along the tracks with flailing arms, waiting until the final split second to jump down into the brush before the freight train roared past.” — from The Fiend.
Millar is a sharp observer. She knows how the muscle memory of the elderly can persist long after thought has gone. Millar’s husband was seriously incapacitated with Alzheimer’s at the time Banshee was written: “He tied excellent knots in things, he repaired doll furniture, cleaned dogs’ ears and removed foxtails from their paws.” Subservient to character, her writing is essentially self-effacing, a far cry, in other words, from noir’s insistent neon phrasing and billboard-like descriptions. And yet, as an author, Millar is tougher than any hard-boiled dick, because less sentimental. She’ll even kill off her protagonist, and an intriguing child at that, if it serves her story. In Banshee, an 8-year-old girl disappears only to be found dead in a secluded canyon near her home after months of futile searching. Suspicion swirls around every male in the community who is too familiar with children, or too annoyed by them or too like a child himself. The discovery that the cause of death was a simple accident comes too late to prevent catastrophe.
The most disturbing darkness she uncovers in the California Eden, however, is not that children die — even in loving families, behind expensive gates, or under the watchful eyes of well-paid housekeepers. It’s that they are capable themselves of intentional acts with horrible, though wholly unintended, consequences. In Millar’s books childhood and youth become the ultimate noir terrain, a place where innocence and amorality blur, where the paradox posed by the golden landscape is mirrored in even more terrifying terms. Can something so beautiful, her novels ask, that has such deathly effects on those who care for it, truly be said to be blameless? And since, in the case of children, it can, how do we live with the knowledge of unmeant pain — and keep them from blaming themselves? The theme had particular resonance for Millar: Her own daughter was convicted of vehicular homicide at 17. Indeed, in their careful detailing of children’s perceptions, Millar’s novels are in themselves a kind of parenting, acts of loving vigilance that are, in the end, as imperfectly protective as a good neighborhood, a school library, or fresh air and sunshine.
If, in the Cold War era’s weird convection of economic optimism and percolating paranoia, the chiaroscuro populism of classic noir seemed seditious to some, ã to others it was merely out of step and a little clunky — like a ’40s wedgie in the age of the fashionably slender heel. Women, faced with a cultural mandate to get back to the hearth once the war effort was over, took their compensation not only in the form of sumptuous skirts and avocado-colored appliances, but in a kind of defiant frivolity.
Charlotte Armstrong was definitely a partisan of the slender heel and froufrou overkill. Indeed, reading her, the most conventional of these three noiresses, it is often impossible to shake the sense of being trapped in a Doris Day movie. The tap-tap-tap of perky, piquant observations is so much the rule that occasionally one yearns for a nice, boring macho slug fest, just to slow the pace down. So the fact that Armstrong too registers the cold blue shadow cast by Southern California’s sunny promise — or more precisely, perhaps, given her preoccupation with old houses, the termite-riddled lath under the glistening stucco — is a kind of testimony. Under the relentless domestic propaganda of the Betty Crocker decade, noir was finding a natural if unexpected outlet in women’s work.
Like Hughes and Millar, Armstrong was an out-of-towner and well-educated. Born in Vulcan, Michigan, she attended the University of Wisconsin and got her B.A. from Barnard. In addition to her life as Mrs. Jack Lewi of Glendale, mother of three, she wrote plays and a dozen or so novels as Armstrong, and others under the name Jo Valentine.
Armstrong’s turf, in novels such as Catch-as-Catch-Can and Dream of Fair Woman, is a recognizable map of bouffant-era Los Angeles — from the perpetually shadowed pseudo-baronial drawing rooms of dusty Los Feliz mansions to the peeling-paint porches on the cul-de-sacs left by intruding freeways from Atwater to Frogtown. Or from the unctuousness of a mid-Wilshire restaurant, with its fashion shows in the private dining room, to the temple of one of the city’s thousands of nameless denominations, all polished wood and floor cushions, whose hilltop perch has been undermined by the excavation of a supermarket parking lot.
She gets her digs in at the dream factories selling sex and pinups, but the chill wind that blows through her books every so often is less attack than anomie. The enigmatic women — therapists or counselors — who are frequent characters in her novels are more interested in power than consolation. The girls some of her most marriageable heroes dream about are childlike or worse. (One, in Dream of Fair Woman, is mysteriously, but attractively, comatose.) For women, the only real romance to be found is in improbable adventures, like those Armstrong concocts for her plucky heroines. As for marriage, the staple promise of women’s novels, “what you get, if you’re bourgeois and respectable,” as one of her heroines laments, “is the jolly old suburban pal with the station wagon and the Cub Scouts.”
Charlotte Armstrong on the side of Philip Marlowe? It’s almost enough to make one believe that noir, now close to retirement age, may still be able to do what geography and politicians have not: forge a single — though double-edged — vision out of this city’s disparate parts. But I’ll always be especially indebted to my three dark ladies. Through their Kodacolor fictions, discovered on friends’ shelves and in second-hand stores, mostly, because their works were erratically in print, I began to mesh my own history, real and imagined, with that of the place I was adopting. Call it reading as homemaking.