The novel opens with a near perfect crime that goes terribly wrong. Gerald Tomlinson and his partner Danny Arbuckle are planning to rob Angelo Bertolli who makes a nightly deposit from a racetrack bookie joint in an after hours bank depository slot. All Tomlinson needs to do is wait for the mark, knock him unconscious, grab the money and run. Simple, clean, easy. What he doesn't plan on is Mrs. Manheimer, a little old lady news agent, who is headed to make her own deposit at the precise minute the bookie's agent is at the bank. When she sees Tomlinson raise his hand clenching a gun and striking Bertolli on the head she lets out a piercing scream. In the confused chaos that follows Bertolli produces a gun he always carries with him and fires two shots as the robbers drive off. Danny, the driver, has been shot and he needs a doctor's attention. Tomlinson has a lot to deal with now that his perfect plan has blown up in his face.
The two plotlines - the botched bank robbery and Len's unintentional discovery of a dead body - will eventually meld together. But not before the brutally beaten body of a teenage babysitter is found on a neighbor's yard and Len is arrested for suspicion of murder. Unlike White's previous three books published by Gold Medal and the two hardcovers for Guilt Edged Mysteries The House Next Door is not so much a study of how criminals turn on one another but rather how crime affects everyday people. Fairlawn's families range from the McNallys, an embittered married couple dealing with infidelities and dissatisfaction, to the staid Kitteridges, British expatriates who hold their neighbors in slight contempt all the while wearing plastered smiles on their faces. As the story progresses the carefully constructed facades of neighborliness crumble to reveal the ugliness at root in these households.
|U.K. 1st edition (T.V. Boardman, 1957)|
There is an element of HIBK in this book, too, which was rather alarming for a writer who is better known for tough-edged noirish thrillers. Reading sentences like "if it hadn't been first for Mrs. Manheimer, and then later for that certain fifteen-year-old girl, Tomlinson's plans would have been without flaw" call to mind the work of Dorothy Cameron Disney and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Jarring to say the least. It's a recurrent stylistic choice, but not without effect. White's unusual method of creating suspense definitely had me turning the pages more quickly.
White juggles the multiple storylines, the large cast of characters and the plot machinations with the ease of any carnival entertainer. It's an invigorating, insightful, and incisive read. Amid all the domestic squabbles, the brutality and violence, The House Next Door is not without its compassionate moments. There are several touching portraits on display to offset the nastiness. White rarely made of use of the balance of light and dark moods in his later career. That he dedicated this book to his wife noting his deep love for her may be the most telling point of all.