Bardin is a new author to me, recommended a few months back on my TBR Pile SOS post. I then got around to buying an omnibus of three of his novels, (something I am very glad I did in hindsight). So over time I am definitely going to come back to the other two: The Last of Philip Banter (1947) and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly (1948). These three novels were produced in a frenzied 18 months, becoming an outlet according to Julian Symons, for some of the writer’s troubling past experiences. In a way these were novels which Bardin could only write in that time and space and his later work according to Symons did not match these three. Despite garnering fans such as Edmund Crispin and Dennis Healey, Bardin was not very well known, not even when he was alive and was much better known in the UK than in his home country, the USA. Symons felt the crime novel was still ‘mostly in the hands of writers who constructed ingenious puzzles’ in the years immediately after WW2, (feel free to quibble). Consequently he felt Bardin’s work departed from this norm and delivered an ‘extraordinary intensity of feeling and’ an ‘absorption in morbid psychology remarkable for the period,’ (again feel free to quibble). He concludes that ‘Bardin was ahead of his time’ and in some ways I think he probably was. The questionable mental stability of his protagonists is a common theme, but even more unnerving is when what we presume is a symptom of madness is actually grounded in the reality of the book. Fans of time travel may find The Last of Philip Banter of interest in which a man finds a document written by himself on his desk talking about future events as they though they have already happened.
However today’s tale commences with Jacob Blunt going to see a psychiatrist, Dr George Matthews, who is also the narrator. Initially Jacob seems normal except for the hibiscus in his hair. He claims he is experiencing hallucinations and he goes onto explain the flowery décor. He says that someone called Joe told him to wear the flower and that Joe is ‘one of my little men. The one in the purple suit. He gives me ten dollars a day for wearing a flower in my hair. Only he picks the flowers and that’s where it gets tough! He can pick the screwiest flowers!’ Yet that is not the end: ‘Oh there’s Harry […] he’s the one who wears green suits and pays me to whistle at Carnegie Hall. And there’s Eustace – he wears tattersall waistcoats and pays me to give quarters away.’ The reader and Matthews would be perfectly justified in thinking Jacob was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. But there is some doubt. The money he is given is real and he has not withdrawn any money from his bank. So if he is hallucinating then where does the money come from? Furthermore Matthews goes with Jacob to meet Eustace, who in fact does exist and Eustace changes the job description so Jacob has to go and deliver a Percheron to stage star Frances Raye. Later that night Matthews gets a phone call that Jacob has been arrested for the murder of Raye. Did he do? Is it a hoax or a frame up? Are those closest to him involved in some way? Now from here you might expect your usual investigation with Matthews aiding Lieutenant
Anderson. Yet just when you think you’ve got the plot sorted Bardin pulls the rug from under your feet and the reader gets a kick on the behind as they plunge down the rabbit hole… I can’t say any more about the plot. I wish I could. I really do. But my lips are sealed. You’ll just have to trust me that it is brilliant.
So it is probably quite obvious by now that I really enjoyed this book. The plot has a surprisingly modern feel and I think a lot of modern TV dramas and films descend from this type of book. I loved how the story develops in unexpected and startling ways. It has been a while since I have been so surprised by a novel. Bardin’s ability to turn things upside down, (and inside out for that matter), reminded me of Frederic Brown’s work. Suffice to say this is edge of your chair reading and even when I thought I knew how the book would end, Bardin once more showed me otherwise and The Deadly Percheron concludes with a heart wrenching resolution. This novel is a good example of a writer who can not only reel you in with one heck of a hook, but can continue to stun the reader throughout, before unfurling a denouement which is deeply satisfying. There are a number of now familiar tropes, (which alas need to be kept unnamed), which I felt Bardin was able to use in unusual and intricate ways, giving them a fresh feel.
It goes without saying, of course, that this is a book you must buy without delay or at the very least place at the top of your letter to Santa. Thankfully there are lots of second hand copies of his work that you can buy very cheaply, so you really have no excuse!
Two of my favourite quotes:
‘You’re thinking of Irish Leprechauns […] Eustace is an American Leprechaun […] Leprechauns, like everything else in America, are bigger and better than anywhere else.’
‘In the last analysis the psychology of the murderer and of the practical joker did differ only in degree. Both were sadists, both enjoyed the pleasures of the grotesque and of inflicting pain on others. Murder might be termed the ultimate practical joke; similarly, a practical jokes might be called the social form of murder.’