Friday, July 27, 2012

FFB: The House Next Door - Lionel White

Best known for his novel Clean Break which became the stunning noir caper movie The Killing directed by Stanley Kubrick and with the crackerjack cast of Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Vince Edwards and Elisha Cook Jr (among others) Lionel White is the last writer you may think of comparing to Charlotte Armstrong, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding or Dorothy Cameron Disney. But while reading The House Next Door (1956) those are the three writers who came immediately to mind. White's seventh novel is a true departure - an exposé of what happens to the homeowners in a suburban housing development when murder literally lands on someone's front lawn.

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.

Meanwhile, Len Nielsen has been celebrating his recent job promotion. He's not much of a drinker but to placate his boss he keeps accepting drink after drink. Drinks at dinner lead to a celebratory champagne toast with two friends and later more drinks at an after dinner bar crawl. Len is sloshed by the time he heads home. He climbs into a cab and directs the driver to Fairlawn, a suburban development with a maze of streets where all the homes look exactly alike. The cabbie is left to his own devices when Len barely coherent can't tell him the precise location of his house. As Len leaves the cab he manages to lose his hat and his glasses and isn't sure where he's walking. His key doesn't seem to fit the front door so he has to climb in a side window. But when he gets inside his wife Allie, who has been expecting him for hours, isn't anywhere in sight. She isn't even in the bedroom when he stumbles in noisily bumping into furniture that he doesn't recognize. Then he notices the garish purple wallpaper with mauve roses. He's in the wrong house. And on the bed is a dead man with a bullet in the center of his forehead.

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)
The crimes will also transform some of Fairlawn's inhabitants, notably Allie Nielsen who is compelled to prove her husband's innocence when Lt. Giddeon refuses to accept her protestations. Allie turns snoop like a younger American version of Jane Marple in order to get at the truth of the babysitter's murder. As she goes door to door asking questions, once adopting a false identity, the final third of the book turns into a neat pastiche of an amateur sleuth detective novel.

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.

10 comments:

  1. So White is worth reading then? I've had a T. V. Boardman edition of The Time of Terror (with a great Denis McLoughlin dust jacket – scroll down here to see) sitting on my shelves for a while, but never quite got round to reading it.

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    1. Coincidentally, I was going to take out The Time of Terror at the same time I found this copy at the CPL. It has a great twist on the average kidnapping tale. Though House Next Door is very different from his usual heist and caper novels I am interested in reading more of White. He has the kind of mix of tough edge in the highly detailed action sequences and a very human insight into people with his characters that appeals to me. Let us know soon what you think of A Time of Terror!

      BTW, the woman on the DJ for TTOT looks like what I imagine Mrs. Julio, the mother of the victim in HND, might look like.

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  2. Always interesting to read of post-war novels that take on the promises of a safer, semi-Utopian suburbia. Better to remain in the decaying city where there are, apparently, far fewer murders per capita.

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    1. The Kitteridges talk about the mistake of choosing Long Island over Manhattan at one point in the book pointing out the irony you mention. I kept thinking of Holding's Death Wish and the lonely married couples in that novel published back in the mid-30s. Times don't change, do they?

      I forgot to mention the character of I. Oliver Leahy, a hotshot defense lawyer who only takes on high profile, newsworthy clients. He is clearly modeled on F. Lee Bailey. Another interesting aspect in the story that had modern resonance.

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    2. Before some Lionel White maven points out my error let me amend my REPLY above by correcting myself. The lawyer character's name is I. Oscar Leavy. Oh, the woes of an aging memory.

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  3. I'm a huge Lionel White fan. THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR isn't as flashy as White's caper novels, but it's clever plot makes it worth reading.

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  4. And I've been meaning to read the White novel or two I've picked up over the last couple of years...soon...promises, promises...

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  5. Of all the Lionel White books I've read (and all when I was much younger), I've never read this one, and I think I should have. What you describe of the story makes the book sound as though it's a solid entry in the "suburban noir" category (even with its "light and dark" and HIBK aspects). Thanks for the review. I'll have to catch up with this one.

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  6. John, thanks for reviewing this book for I'm now more keen to read White's CLEAN BREAK (though I haven't seen its film remake "The Killing") and THE BIG CAPER, just two of dozens of copyright-free pulp fiction I have downloaded over the past few weeks. I read excerpts of these novels and my first impression was that White has a clean narrative style, very straight laced. I'm usually wary of too many plots and dead bodies though there's no way of knowing it till you start reading the book, but I'm sure White carries it off well.

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  7. Read Clean Break a few years ago and saw the movie too. Found them to be good. This seems even better.

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