That line and the cleavage, pink nightgown and knowing look of the woman on the cover of The Wife Next Door are classic examples of Gold Medal Books at their sleazy best. Anyone buying the book knew that at least one commandment would be broken in the course of this story.
As usual with Cassill’s pulp novels, he gave himself the opportunity to explore material he was interested in while also providing the publisher with material that fit the desired formula. In this case, the story is set at Blackhawk University, Cassill’s fictional version of the University of Iowa, where he studied and taught, which was also the setting of an earlier pulp, Naked Morning. Cassill also drew upon his own experiences, as he, like the characters, lived in the former Army barracks on campus that served as housing for married students during the boom in attendance after the passing of the G. I. Bill.
The story opens with a preposterous incident in which Tom, a hard-partying pre-med student, spies Karen (the wife next door) through his bathroom window, develops a drunken infatuation, and invades her apartment later that night with the aim of consummating his lust. He strips naked and staggers toward Karen, only to have her react as any normal woman might–screaming and kicking and trying to force him out of the place. Somehow Tom manages to escape without either Karen or his own wife learning his identity, although running around naked and drunk does eventually land him in jail.
The entire episode serves no purpose and could have been dropped entirely, for Cassill then begins where we might expect it to–namely, with Tom and his wife becoming acquaintances with Karen and her husband, their new neighbors. Indeed, it’s as if Cassill changed his mind, and from Chapter 4 on, made this more of a story of the predatory wife than the predatory husband. Karen and Tom’s wife Amelia become good friends, although Karen does seem to be more than a little interested in Tom and Amelia’s love life. In short, Tom is a stud while Karen’s husband Willard is … well, not, and Karen soon wants to find out what she’s been missing.
What for Tom is just a lucky jump in the sack becomes an obsession for Karen, and while he appreciates the occasion bit on the side, she convinces herself that the two are in love and destined to be together. While not quite in the league with Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction,” Karen is an early prototype of the jilted lover stalker. Once again fascinated with unstable substances, Cassill goes overboard by introducing a sub-plot in which the sight of Tom and Karen steaming up the car windows in a deserted Iowa state park sends a respected member of the Blackhawk medical faculty into an erotic fugue state that eventually leads him to rape Tom’s wife and then force her to submit to sex with a taxi driver. Even by Gold Medal’s standard, Cassill delivered way more sex, alcohol, violence and weirdness than they asked for. Who knew such things went on in Iowa?
In a way, The Wife Next Door is the most effective pulp novel by Cassill that I’ve read so far. It’s not a very good novel, even if we forget the ridiculous opening of Naked Tom in the Night. But it is effective as pulp fiction along the lines of, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, where the characters are fast, loose and out of control. I read the thing in about two hours and felt like I needed to take a shower to clean off afterwards. Which I guess is some kind of benchmark.