Showing posts with label Lionel White. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lionel White. Show all posts

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.