“Look at me. I did one exciting thing in all my life. I married you. That’s all. And it looks like the excitement hasn’t even begun yet.”
You can’t read vintage crime without coming across the name Harry Whittington (1915-1989), and lucky for readers, epublishers are reviving many vintage titles that were previously only available in old, sometimes pricey and frail, paperbacks. Of course, you can’t beat those vintage covers if you’re a collector, but all too often the price of these little gems is not-for-the-average-reader.
According to the introduction to You’ll Die Next!, written by crime author Mike Dennis, Whittington “churned out over 200 novels–though the exact number has never been determined.” Dennis adds Whittington, known as the “King of the Paperback Originals,” used “over a dozen pen names” and “at his peak [he wrote] seven novels a year.” His record output was “seven in one month.” You’ll Die Next! is short (123 pages) and manages to keep up a breakneck speed of action. This is definitely pulp but it’s merged with noir–our Everyman hero is a very average man, who lives in a modest house and works a boring job, but fate puts him on a collision course with murder, revenge and deadly violence, and this all happens after he opens his front door….
It’d always worried him. He knew what he was, a guy making $65 a week take-home pay from a government vet administration office. She had guys paying sixty-five bucks for flowers she sniffed maybe once and dropped into the waste basket. At twenty-three Lila had everything. She could have married mink, Cadillacs, Bergdorf-Goodman accounts.
They’ve been married now for six months, and part of Henry, the part that can’t believe his luck, is waiting for something to go wrong, but so far, married life is idyllic. Lila may look slightly out-of-place in a tiny, drab house, wearing an apron and cooking meals for her husband, but she insists that she loves being a housewife. The novel opens with a scene of domestic intimacy–Lila in that apron, cooking for Henry when the doorbell rings. It’s one of those moments, when you want to urge the character not to open the door, but Henry answers this call from fate, and his life begins to spiral out of control….
Within just the space of a few short nightmarish hours, Henry Wilson has lost everything that he worked so hard for. Suspicions about Lila drive a wedge through their married life, but that’s only the beginning. Soon Henry has lost his job, can’t go home, and can’t even seek help from the police. A fugitive from both the cops and the insane crooks bent on retribution, there’s nowhere to turn and no place to hide. The big question here is what can Henry Wilson do to save himself and Lila?
Once Henry opens that front door, the action doesn’t stop, so this is a quick read, pulp action with noir undertones. There’s not much time spent on character development as most of the plot shows Henry reacting to nightmarish adversity, on the run, trying to recoup some of his old life, but since he doesn’t know his enemies, he’s always at a disadvantage. Henry has to somehow turn around the action, so that he’s no longer a victim, so that he’s no longer reacting to the violence and actions of others–no easy feat to think and act like a criminal when you’re a low-level government paper pusher.
The nice touch here is the domestic, idyllic beginning and the way in which Whittington shows that everything Henry values is destroyed once he opens that front door to the outside world. Henry’s life with Lila is threatened by some very unpleasant characters seeking revenge, but Henry’s marital bliss is also threatened by his doubts about who Lila really is. At one pivotal point in the novel, Henry meets a stranger who senses trouble involving a female. The strategic placement of this character, who is superfluous to the plot, serves to echo Henry’s doubts about Lila as he offers comments that gnaw at Henry’s psyche:
“I can tell you this, friend,” the stout man said. “women are all trouble. Good ones. Bad ones.” He shook his head. “They don’t mean to be, some of ’em. But they are.”
While Whittington cleverly structures the life of an Everyman for readers to identify with, he also accentuates subconscious fears that a desirable woman is really just stringing along her sucker of a husband until a better gig turns up. And this is the power of this pulp novel–Whittington taps into those fears, and it’s fairly easy to identify with Henry, a man who’s led a life of boring predictability, always taking the safe road. Before Lila, Henry was “a guy in a rut. A guy digging a groove into a grave.” Lila is Henry’s one deviation from his staid life, and that’s why he expects something bad to happen. Now finding himself beyond the safety net of society, and relying on his own resources, he must somehow rescue his life before it’s totally destroyed.
Punks, pimps and prostitutes–all were wearing the uniforms of their trades. A Salvation Army band added to the din, playing with all its strength at two bums watching from the kerb: Neons glittered, rose red and bile green, and reflected kin the dirty puddles at the kerb.