“Listen, baby,” he said. “I don’t think you quite understand. There was a dead man there, a man that I have every reason to believe was murdered. Someone murdered him. And someone saw me there in that house.”
Fairlawn Acres is a typical American suburb, full of average, ordinary families. Howard McNally has a beautiful wife and child, but can’t stop thinking about the teenage babysitter. Len Neilsen stumbles into the wrong house after a drunken dinner with his boss, only to find himself “in a strange house, in a strange bedroom, with a man who was very dead.” He doesn’t even know which house it was, since they all look alike.
And Gerald Tomlinson has just stolen $48,000 from the South Shore Bank in a bloody shootout—money he’s determined to keep by any means necessary.
The House Next Door begins with a bang, as Tomlinson and his sidekick Arbuckle commit a daring daylight stickup. The heist sequence is riveting; then the plot quickly switches gears, morphing into a quirky dark comedy of suburban dysfunction. The consequences of the crime pass through Fairlawn Acres like a virus. None of its residents are even aware of the robbery, let alone that the thieves have chosen their community as a hideout, yet they somehow seem to sense that violence is near, setting off a chain reaction of disasters large and small.
Tomlinson has planned his theft meticulously. He keeps the crew small to avoid suspicious comings and goings. He even enlists his sister-in-law and niece to provide protective covering—they will look like another new family moving into the housing development, not a band of bank robbers on the lam. (In a nasty touch, the sister-in-law is also Tomlinson’s mistress, financially dependent on him after being widowed.) A former cop, Tomlinson knows all the angles and is utterly without remorse.
That’s bad news for next-door neighbor Len Neilsen, who blunders into the aftermath of the bank robbery. This innocent mistake is only the beginning of a bloody weekend for the normally quiet neighborhood. The more Len and his wife Allie try to do the right thing, the more trouble they find themselves in.
City-bred Allie is charmed by Fairlawn Acres, with its green lawns and shiny new ranch houses. Surely these nice houses belong to nice families just like her own. She soon learns how little she really knows about these people who live only a few feet away. Behind the picture windows, Allie finds adultery, spousal abuse, and alcoholism, along with an array of lesser sins. All of them add up to trouble for the Neilsens. When Len is in danger, it’s easier for the neighbors to stand by and do nothing than risk having their own secrets exposed.
But still, no matter how she turned it around or analyzed it, they had all seemed so completely strange and weird. They had all been evasive and there had been that constant undercurrent of tension. It was almost as though they had contracted some fantastic emotional disease.
The fact that each of their houses had been identical, yes, even identical to her own house where she and Len had hoped to find so much happiness, made it all even more unreal. How could people all live in the same house with the same design and the same rooms and almost the identical furniture and drapes, and still be so completely different from each other? So different from Len and Billy and herself.
The book’s most unique feature is a very omniscient narrator who tends to wander off on a tangent, looking into the future of some random character who may play a vital role in the plot, but is just as likely to be a bit player or someone who does not appear in the story at all. Most of these observations are dryly amusing, though others are tragic. They give the impression of an enormous child playing with real-life dolls, delicately plucking the roof off the dollhouse to peer inside for a moment.
By turns brutal, satirical, and tender-hearted, The House Next Door is quite unlike any other crime novel. The reader can never get too comfortable. White is constantly setting up expectations only to gleefully knock them down. Though the book takes plenty of swipes at suburban conformity, by the end it is clear that Fairlawn Acres is not the villain—or at least not the only villain. Crime and misery come from people, wherever it is they happen to land.
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.
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.
The House Next Door is available in paperback and ebook formats from Stark House, in a double volume with Marilyn K.
One thought on “The House Next Door (1956) by Lionel White”
Very intriguing! One more to add to the TBB list.