This unusual thriller comes in a new volume comprising two previously hard-to-find titles by Lionel White (1905-85) from those very nice people at Stark House Press, the imprint specialising in new and classic crime fiction. White was the king of the paperback heist story but the robbery (which of course all goes horribly wrong) only takes up a few pages in the first chapter. The rest of the book instead details what happens once the two thieves (one very seriously injured) reach their eponymous safe house.
I offer this review for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog and Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo .
“It was almost as though an evil curse had fallen over the residents of Fairlawn Acres.”
Gerald, a crooked and thoroughly nasty ex cop, and his wounded getaway driver Danny, arrive with $48,000 of the mob’s money at the small and quiet house they have rented in Fairlawn Acres in the New York suburbs. Gerald will have to get rid of Danny and that night two shots are fired – and that is pretty much the last we hear from them until the end, the focus now shifting to Gerald’s neighbours in this a new housing development, which is made up of hundreds of identical little constructions selling for $14,995 each (this is an era in which babysitting cost the outrageous sum of a buck and a quarter per hour).
“It was then that Len Nielsen saw the body on the bed.”
Len Nielsen has just been promoted and got thoroughly drunk with is new boss as a result. Arriving at Fairlawn late that night he goes into his house only to realise that he has in fact gone into the wrong one – he knows this because in his bedroom instead of his wife Allie he finds the body of a dead man (Danny). Terrified he makes a sharp exit. At the same time, Myrtle McNally sends her husband Howard away from the party they are attending at the home of the Swansons across the street to investigate the sound of the shooting. He checks in on theirbaby sitter, fifteen-year-old Louisa, and finds himself overcome with lust and makes what he considers in retrospect to be a very undignified ‘pass’ but which is in fact a brutal sexual assault. She flees in terror into the night. The next morning her body is found under the juniper bushes of Mrs Ketteridge. Events now conspire, or more properly contrive (and not entirely convincingly either, it has to be said), to make it seem as though Len is in fact the killer, nobody believing his story of having come across a dead body in a neighbour’s house while in a drunken stupor from which he can recall very little.
“Allie alone was the one person who believed in Len. It was up to her, then, to prove his innocence”
One of the aspects of the book that I think works best is when Allie Nielsen becomes her husband’s champion against all odds as the neighbours start to close ranks, either to hide their own secrets or just because they don’t want to get involved in a police investigation. She is an unlikely heroine but is full of pluck and bravery and of all the characters, she is definitely the one you are rooting for. But will she make it? While the use of time shifts in the narrative, as we flit backwards and forwards from one event to another, is recognisably from the author of Clean Break (previously reviewed here), White in his omniscient narration adopts a somewhat arch style that leans heavily on the irony for a semi humorous effect. The result is a somewhat satirical view of the American dream, one that surprises less for its plot turns (which are none the less there) than for its comically inclined critique of a small community. In this respect the book in many places reminded me of Stanley Ellin’s Key to Nicholas Street (which I previously reviewed here). White may not have been as subtle or as artful an author as Ellin, but this is none the less a fascinating book, full of unexpected insight and black humour, all leading to a slam-bang finish.
For a different look at this book, please head over to Pretty Sinister Books, the terrific blog by my crime fiction chum John F Norris.
This handsome volume has just been published in an omnibus edition by Stark House Press, and many thanks to them for supplying the review copy. The book is available directly from them and from all the usual outlets – here are the details
Marilyn K / The House Next Door
By Lionel White
ISBN: 978-1-933586-87-8 (paperback), 225 pages, $20.95
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘set in the USA’ category: