Wed 19 Nov 2008
MILES BURTON – Beware Your Neighbour. Collins Crime Club, UK, hardcover, 1951. No US publication.
Hallows Green is a quiet street of detached houses with highly respectable inhabitants, a microcosm of middle-class England. There’s Walter Glandford, retired science professor; general practitioner Dr. Jeremy Teesdale; solicitor Peter Raynham; brothers Lawrence and Barry Flamstead, who live at opposite ends of the street and unfortunately do not get along too well; retired admiral Sir Hector Sapperton,; philanthropist Miss Florence Wayland; former civil servant Charles Vawtrey; and bank manager Claude Dodworthy. An exotic note is struck in this residential backwater by Hopton and Rachel Egremont, the couple holding regular religious services with a vaguely Eastern flavour in their corner house.
Generally speaking the neighbours are friendly but alas, this soon changes following a series of anonymous communications, causing each resident of Hallows Green to look with suspicion on the others.
It all begins when Glandford’s morning post brings a note informing him murder stalks Hallows Green. Miss Wayland receives a New Year card signed as from Death, while Peter Raynham is the recipient of an antique dagger blade inscribed “Honourable Death Is Best.” Lawrence Flamstead gets a drawing of a tiger with the message “Media vita morte sumus” or “In the midst of life we are in death.” Dr Teesdale’s note, a torn-out advertisement inscribed “H.C.N.,” is left under the windscreen wiper of his car. Sir Hector receives an envelope containing one of his own calling cards amended to show “Death comes for” written above his name.
Banker Dodworthy’s communication arrives in the form of a parcel left in his bank’s night safe. It contains a wooden box which by the agency of an explosive strip from a Christmas cracker goes bang when he (rather foolishly in my opinion!) opens it. Further, the box lid is embellished “Next time…Death” in poker work. Vawtrey is the recipient of a photograph of a skeleton marked, in reversed letters, “Yours.” Only Barry Flamstead, one of the warring brothers, and the religious Egremonts are left out.
It becomes apparent whoever is keeping the postman busy is a resident of the street. And since the inhabitants naturally want to keep the situation quiet to avoid the scarlet taint of scandal, enter the admiral’s former colleague and now friend Desmond Merrion to investigate.
Hardly has Merrion arrived when Vawtrey’s garden goes up in flames, gigantic footprints are discovered here and there, matters escalate, and ultimately murder is done. But who is responsible and what could be the motive for the crimes disturbing this quiet pocket of suburbia?
My verdict: I felt Beware Your Neighbour leaned towards metamorphing into a literary curate’s egg, yet I cannot say any part of it was actually bad.
All through the novel I was racking my brains as to what messages the anonymous communications could possibly mean. There’s much innocent fun to be had speculating on the matter. For example, did the honourable death dagger blade sent to solicitor Raynham point to a disgruntled former client or a shady incident in the legal eagle’s past? Then too why were one brother and the religious couple left out of the general correspondence?
The reader is drawn along through a string of strange incidents until Merrion begins to unravel what is going on. When the solution is revealed, readers may accept the motive behind the odd communications as fitting with the ultimate crime, though if like me they begin thinking about it later they may begin to wonder if the whole odd arrangement was over-egging the pudding somewhat — not to mention pointing the finger into a very small circle, surely something the culprit would wish to avoid.
So there was a little disappointment at the end of a novel with an otherwise excellent set-up. I for one would have loved to see what sort of plot Agatha Christie would have constructed using those letters as its kicking off point!
[EDITORIAL UPDATE] 11-20-08. I’ve deleted my previous comment, which dealt with my inability to find a cover image to go along with Mary’s review, the first failure I’ve had along those lines in quite a while.
The good news, though, is that I’ve had the good fortune to have one sent to me, and you will have already seen it above. Sometimes all you need to do is ask. And to offer special thanks in return to Ian of SA Book Connection, who said and I quote:
You are more than welcome to this rather disreputable cover…now sold. Such a pity that the really nice copy I had went at $300 without my having scanned it. I do still have one left…spine a trifle more white than this so any publicity for SA Book Connection welcome!
Thanks for finding me.
Me again. Thanks again, Ian. If anyone’s interested, please follow the link above. And when doing the required search for the book, don’t forget to spell Neighbour correctly!