Beware Your Neighbour, by Miles Burton (1951)

439WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

Hallows Green is a single street in the British city of Barncaster that contains ten houses.  This is a quiet little street that you probably would never enter unless you had business there … upper middle-class people living in fairly nice houses.  There’s a doctor, a lawyer, a retired professor, a retired admiral, a bank manager, a philanthropic widow, an amateur photographer of some renown, two brothers of independent means who live with their families in houses that face each other. The only unusual people there are Mr. and Mrs. Egremont at number 1, who are popularly supposed to be the Prophet and Prophetess of some strange cult.  But no one bothers their neighbours much and the general atmosphere is that of an oasis of quiet in the city.

Welwyn_Garden_City_cul-de-sacOne by one, the inhabitants of Hallows Green begin to receive strange and ominous messages. All are different — some elaborate, some simple. But all these messages refer to death. Before notifying the police, the retired admiral calls in his amateur detective friend Desmond Merrion to see if he can shed light on the baffling warnings that have come to eight of the ten houses.

Before too long, the amateur photographer’s stock of equipment and negatives are burned, with his back yard shed.  Another resident is bashed with a heavy branch that’s been set in the form of a booby trap. Finally, as the police are called in, two residents of a house are found mysteriously dead. Desmond Merrion works with his long-time associate, Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard, to determine an extremely unusual state of affairs and bring the crime home to a surprising criminal.

Why is this worth reading?

Under Canadian copyright law, the enormous backlist of Miles Burton (and John Rhode, both pseudonyms of Cecil J. C. Street) came into the public domain this year. Since Burton/Rhode novels are one of my current interests, I’ve acquired two dozen of them from archive.org and I’m currently in … well, let’s call it hog heaven. 😉  Rhode and Burton novels have been difficult and expensive to acquire for many years and I’ve never had more than a dozen of them pass through my hands, at least that I can recall. Now that I can get them in quantity, I’ve had the opportunity to barely begin to get to know this writer, but so far I’m enjoying what I’m reading.

The ones I’ve recently acquired have mostly been titles from the latter part of Burton’s career like this one. After having gone through a handful of them in a glorious couple of days, I’ve noticed a repetitive plot structure that seems to be frequently, but not always, present. It has to do with a criminal deciding to commit a crime and constructing a bogus situation that will pin the guilt upon some nearby person; the real criminal doesn’t appear until near the end of the novel after the detective notices that some tiny things don’t add up.  I’m happy to say that this is NOT one of those. I found this one the most satisfying of the handful I’ve recently gobbled, and I enjoyed it quite a bit; the criminal is someone at whom the reader has had a chance to look, and I think that’s important. I was also pretty much completely hoodwinked by the plot, which I find enjoyable.  Yes, this book requires some suspension of disbelief, but not more so than many Golden Age mysteries.

There was also some interesting moments of social history, always a great interest of mine in the context of GAD.  Like so much of GAD, the finest of inferences about topics of social history are not always available to a modern audience who have lost the context. It is not quite clear to me why Mrs. Egremont wearing sandals in public is somehow linked to her being … “not our sort, dear,” although I hasten to add that that’s not a direct quote.  There are some lovely moments in the thoughts of an aging philanthropist and worker of good deeds who reflects that she cannot afford to replace her assistant and so the assistant’s budding romance must be nipped in the bud. The precise shades of social distinction between various retired professionals are unspoken but definitely there; apparently retired admirals trump retired lawyers in the leadership sweepstakes.  And the single-minded gentleman who spends his days and nights thinking about photography is given the same kind of amused tolerance as modern Britons give, say, the twitcher (bird-watcher) or the railway anorak (I hope I have those terms correct!).

Oddly enough, I had a weird flash of a very unlikely author for comparison; Mary Roberts Rinehart. MRR did these closed-circle streets very well, but in a completely different way. Her “cul de sac” novels like The Album (1933) focus on heightening tension and a kind of claustrophobic shrinking of the characters’ viewpoints to a smaller and smaller area. Burton’s Hallows Green’s inhabitants, for the most part, are everyday folks with ordinary and fairly happy lives; there are children and servants and a life outside the street. Rinehart’s books focused on gloomy landscapes that produced emotional stress and violence (an old lady is murdered with an axe in The Album). Burton follows a different path, where the happiness of everyday life is interrupted by bizarre and inexplicable events that soon lead to violence. It’s easier for an ordinary person to empathize with the peaceful neighbours of Hallows Green, I think, but I was surprised at the amount of tension that the author managed to induce. You really do want to know who is doing these things, and why.

My favourite edition

I read this in an electronic edition freely available from archive.org and there doesn’t seem to be any “cover art” associated with that. As you can imagine, there haven’t been many editions and this volume seems to have been published pretty much in its Collins first edition (seen above) and then neglected. So my favourite edition thus far is the one I got freely from archive.org, now that it’s January 2016 and it’s in the public domain in Canada and Australia.  I know this situation is different in the United States and Great Britain and it may not be legal for you to obtain this free e-book; please proceed accordingly.

With that in mind, I note that there actually is a 2013 trade paperback edition which is spelled Beware Your Neighbor available. I do not believe that this company has the legal right to publish that book and so I won’t enable you to find it. The title is misspelled, the cover is ugly, and, frankly, the description of the book is completely incorrect in every detail. If you’re going to commit an act of literary piracy disrespectful of the author’s heirs, you should at least do it with a little class.

 

4 thoughts on “Beware Your Neighbour, by Miles Burton (1951)

  1. cmikolj says:

    Hi Noah – many thanks for introducing me to this author and I shall certainly seek these books out. Re the sandals; dress codes in Britain back then were quite strict and one’s clothes were certainly an indication of class. For an enjoyable explanation of this, see Miss Marple in Christie ‘s The Body in the Library.

  2. JJ says:

    I liberally skimmed this, Noah, as it’s not a book I’ve read (and I take your warning very seriously!), but it sounds excellent and having experienced Burton for the first time last year with Death Leaves No Card (which – ha – fits the description of your general plot contruction for Buton to a T) he is an author I’m very excited to read more by.

    Ramble House have A Smell of Smoke on their catalogue and the British Library Crime Classics are reprinting a couple of his later this year, but I had no idea bout archive.org, so it’s great to know of a resource where I’ll be able to get yet more as I need them. Many thanks indeed.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I honestly don’t think there’s anything here that will impair your enjoyment of the book. But what I’m finding is that when this author finds a GOOD story hook, he can write it out with the best of them.

      • JJ says:

        And that’s a lovely discovery, isn’t it? I’m finding the ame thing with Norman Berrow – only two books in, admittedly, but I trust him to build, develop, and explain something extremely well when he’s set himself a suitable foundation to do so. Makes for a much more relaxing reading experience…

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