You’ll Die Next! – Harry Whittington

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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.

Ace Double D-63 - 1954 - artist unknown.

Ace Double D-63 – 1954 – artist unknown. The blurb isn’t quite accurate, but the protagonist running through a world of lonely desolation really captures the book’s mood.

Henry Wilson lives a quiet life, a clerk at the Veteran’s Affairs with a drop-dead gorgeous wife so in love with homely old him that he can’t believe it. That quiet life changes with a knock on his door: he leaves his breakfast popovers behind to take a few blows and a threat of future violence, and as he hits the ground Henry’s world comes crashing down with him. They say they’re onto him, that they’ve found him, that  they tracked him all the way from California and will have their revenge. The trouble is, Henry doesn’t know what they’re talking about—he’s never been to California, never hurt anyone before in his life. His tormentors don’t care, and neither does anyone he reaches out to for help—especially after he’s framed for his wife’s near-murder and the shooting of a policeman. Henry Wilson’s idyllic life turns into a descent into hell, from which he may never recover…

The plot is a noir staple, where the everyman protagonist is sucked into a dangerous situation, forced to descend into the criminal shadow world to restore the normalcy to his boring old life. Henry’s still in awe of his wife—a mysterious, sexual creature he met when she was a singer at the local Kit-Kat club—but he loves her beyond measure, and soldiers through being beaten and shot for love of her. Henry stands alone against his unknown pursuers and their terrible case of mistaken identity; trying to discover his attackers, he heads into the seedy side of town that’s more familiar to his wife than it is to Henry, beginning his descent into darkness. He succeeds at stumbling into the source of his life’s disturbance, and finds more than he bargained for—a trap set for someone else, using Henry as bait.

Carroll & Graf - 1993.

Carroll & Graf – 1993 – artist unknown.

You’ll Die Next is not a long novel—it clocks in around 35,000 words, which would be categorized as a novella today. Not a single word is wasted, not a single scene is out of place, and the story rockets along from one tension-filled chapter to another. There’s a couple Whittington quotes about  plot, and this story feels like the work of a master pulpster. It’s an efficient web of twists and hooks, nothing else, making it easy to finish the novel in an hour or two—because it’s too hard to put it down. Aside from his economical use of words and plot, Whittington has a compelling character in Henry—a man easy to identify with because of his normalcy, an average joe with realistic limits and motivations. Henry’s out of his element and has the deck stacked against him, but isn’t willing to back down, and we watch him struggle through his trials and tribulations.

Some of the book’s twists—such as the explanation for Henry’s tormented life, and the book’s finale—are brilliant surprises that neatly wrap up the plot, and while I can’t say they were entirely convincing I did find they were unique and memorable. And at only 35,000 words, you’re not getting a lot of depth or characterization, though Henry is easy to root for and empathize with. But you know what? If you like plot—the twisty-turny suspense kind where you can’t put the book down because you want to see what happens next—then this is a good book for you. They really don’t make them like they used to.

youll-die-next-280-stepsWhittington didn’t mess around with his plots; I keep expecting to read a book of his that I find merely average, but that hasn’t happened yet. You’ll Die Next! is a compelling little novel with a blazing-hot plot and non-stop action, both a fast read and a really good one. It’s great white-knuckle reading—short, fast, and to the point, delivering on thrills thanks to the situations the luckless protagonist finds himself in. Recommended for fans of ’50s crime thrillers and Whittington fans. And it’s pretty easy to track down a copy of You’ll Die Next! since it’s available for the e-reader of your choice via 280 Steps.

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