Henry Wilson was the most unexceptional of men, a guy with below-average looks who held a crummy $65-per-week clerical job at the Veterans Administration. He was nothing special, and nothing special—for good or ill—had ever happened to him. Then two remarkable things happened. First, an out-of-this-world beautiful lounge singer named Lila took him as her husband. Swapping her gig at the Kit-Kat Club for a life of matrimonial devotion, Lila made Henry feel as if the gods had decided to shine a light of grace on his every Everyman move. That’s where this short, lightning-crisp thriller begins. Then a second remarkable thing happens. One morning, while he finishes a breakfast that Lila has lovingly prepared for him, Henry hears his doorbell ring. Waiting for him on the front stoop of his humble bungalow, there is a slick, pale-skinned man in a snappy, pale-colored suit. The man is a goon, a tough customer of the kind who might patronize the Kit-Kat Club. He’s come to deliver a message to Henry, and it comes in the form of a blistering sucker punch.
The forces that uproot Henry from his drab daily existence are as elemental as can be. Lila embodies the mystery of sex, and that cold-white stranger embodies the certainty of death. Henry doesn’t die from the punch that he takes, but the threat of a violent end hangs over him now. From the stranger, he learns that someone—he doesn’t yet know who, or why—bears a fatal grudge against him. Other threats rapidly follow: a threat to his livelihood, a threat to his faith in Lila, a threat to his basic freedom to move within the city that he calls home. That city, which bears the generic name of Richmont, might as well be Anytown, U.S.A. You’ll Die Next!, published as a cheap paperback original, resembles many works of its kind (and many works of its era) in that it draws narrative energy from the confrontation between an ordinary “mass” man and the impersonal, unforgiving institutions that define postwar American life. Caught between a criminal machine on one side and a faceless public bureaucracy on the other side, Henry struggles to establish not just his personal safety, but his very identity. He stands naked in the naked city, and yet no one will see him for who he really is.
Whittington ends this noir-inspired tale in a brightly conventional, and not altogether convincing, way. That’s understandable: The norms of mass-market publishing in 1954 usually didn’t allow an author to take his hero very far in the direction of anti-heroism. Otherwise, Whittington succeeds in taking Henry Wilson—and readers, too—on a white-knuckle ride through the modern concrete jungle.