William F. Deeck

BURTON E. STEVENSON – The House Next Door. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1932. Hutchinson, UK, hardcover, 1932.

   Reviewers, certainly those like me who assay the gold of the past, ought to get hazardous-duty compensation for the dross. Reading this novel could have produced brain rot if the author’s leaden prose had not set up the defense mechanism of allowing me to immediately forget what had just been read.

   Something like eight years passed between Stevenson’s previous mystery effort and this one. I can assure you that he was not perfecting The House Next Door all that time.

   According to the publisher: “In order to aid the reader in choosing a mystery of whose merit he may be certain in advance, the ‘hard-faced editors’ are placing a red badge on those detective stories which they are willing to recommend unreservedly to the most discriminating reader.”

   The red badge on this one is indubitably a fraud, for God knows I am not all that discriminating.

   The only thing that can be said in favor of this novel is the apparent absence of typographical errors. Otherwise, the plot is silly, the characters totally unbelievable, and the characters’ acts and conversation tedious.

   Turning the pages was an ordeal, but I continued to read in the hope that there might be something — anything, even one felicitous phrase — to justify publication. That hope was dashed when page 313 was reached.

   The narrator, a lawyer, judges everyone by physiognomy, even including the first corpse, whose “high, narrow forehead bespoke intelligence, but also a limited and narrow character. There were little peevish lines about the eyes It was a selfish and egotistical face, utterly without attraction.”

   One of the detectives — Godfrey, of the Record, as he is described — says: “‘Of course I suspected [Blank] from the first. For one thing, I didn’t like the way his eyes were spaced.”’

   Anyone unprepossessing or suffering from some slight physical impairment had better not be around these chaps when a crime is committed.

   As for what there is of a plot, Professor Verity wants to change his will, but somebody breaks his neck before he can accomplish that aim. The neighbors are a heathen Hindu and an oily Italian. Look no farther for suspects.

   Oh, there’s another chap that might have done it, but the Professor’s daughter is in love with him and he’s Anglo-Saxon and not obviously disfigured, so he has to be innocent.

From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring 1988.

Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   According to Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, Burton E. Stevenson, 1872-1962, wrote thirteen mysteries, one marginally criminous, between 1903 and 1939. The book Bill referred to as preceding this one was The Storm-Center (1924). Jim Godfrey, the sleuth of record in The House Next Door, was in five others, including Stevenson’s first one, The Holladay Case (1903).

   Mike Grost takes a critical look at The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet (1911), one of Stevenson’s earlier books, on his Classic Mystery and Detection website, comparing his work in some ways to that of Mary Roberts Rinehart.

   Many of Stevenson’s books, including the latter, are available online. A complete listing can be found here.

   When he wasn’t writing mystery fiction, Burton Stevenson was quite well-known in other fields, at least locally, in his home town in Ohio. Quoting from this online site:

    “Born in Chillicothe in 1872, Burton Stevenson’s life was devoted to the written word as a prolific author and anthologist, and as a librarian. Following stints as a journalist while a student at Princeton University and then at newspapers in Chillicothe, Stevenson became the librarian of the city’s public library in 1899. He held the post for 58 years.

    “Stevenson then went to Paris as the European director of the Library War Service. After the Armistice in 1918, he established the American Library in Paris and directed it until 1920 and again from 1925-1930. In addition to accomplishments as a librarian, he wrote or compiled more than 50 books….”