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.’
Managed to get a copy off my local Kindle store. 🤩 I did wondering if this title leans slightly too much towards the psychological thriller genre – but the stellar rating of 5/5 won me over. 😼
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It probably is a psychological thriller, but I think the way Bardin handles his plot he still gives the reader a lot to mull over and you do spend most of the story trying to guess the way things will pan out, only to discover how wrong you are! That and you know you want to find out the solution behind the little men and the percherons…
Kate, you might want to double-check the author’s name!
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ahh well done for spotting my deliberate mistake! I was wondering who would notice lol
Having followed the link to your TBR post I am so gobsmacked I feel dizzy. Under 10?? And you are *complaining*??
The complete Ngaio Marsh. That’ll learn ya for complaining.
Seriously, buy a Kindle, paperwhite or better. It is NOT like reading on a screen as it is not back lit. The page is printed. The font is adjustable. The books are easier to get and usually cheaper. And not all of Freeman Wills Crofts is on Kindle.
I read a Bardin decades ago — on the recommendation of Julian Symons — and liked it, but not as much as you did. I have another, on Kindle, I might get to in a while.
Based on this review I will make a couple odd suggestions
Hugh Fleetwood, The Order Of Death
Thornburg, Cutter & Bone
These are “Puzzle Doctor will hate them” crime novels of the kind Symons would like. Both are superb and not your usual thing. Both were filmed, but the movie of Order isn’t good. And one of my old favorites which is in Martin Edwards’s 100 books
F Tennyson Jesse, A Pin to See the Peepshow.
Also with the PD seal of disapproval 😉😎
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The film of Cutter and Bone – Cutter’s Way – may be even better than the book and the book is very good indeed.
Yes, Cutter’s Way is magnificent. I saw it decades ago and searched for book for 25 years. Then it appeared cheap on Kindle. This summer it was 99 cents. I think both are just top drawer.
Well my TBR pile is in the teens at the moment so I don’t have to worry much. I know people with large TBR piles laugh at my dilemma because they can’t imagine having so few books to read, but there is definitely anxiety about running out of books to read. I’d definitely recommend giving Bardin another go.
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I remember liking this one a lot too, mainly for it’s very imaginative, what-the-hell-is-going-on-here quality. I wish there were more books like it.
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what-the-hell-is-going-on-here is a very apt way of describing this book. Needs to be a genre of its own.
There are a few books belonging to that genre, but not enough for my liking. ‘The Last of Philip Banter’ is one, I guess, though I don’t feel it lives up to it’s brilliant premise – but then, how could it? Sebastian Japrisot’s ‘The Lady in the Car with the Glasses and the Gun’ is not a bad effort, and Lucille Fletcher’s ‘Eighty Dollars to Stamford’, which I think I’ve recommended before, is masterly.
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I’ve got a copy of Fletcher’s book now, so looking forward to giving it a go.
I have always heard that this book is very good, but still not read it. It just hasn’t turned up and I haven’t gone out looking for it. You have motivated me to do that more actively, but I have a huge TBR pile so don’t really need to add it.
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Just finished reading this and wanted to come back to how much of the plot you had put in your review – which is exactly the right amount. The fascinating hook and the assumptions made from it – before having the rug pulled from under my feet.
In the first section, my mind was drawn to a particular Sherlock Holmes story and then various ideas about motives (some of which were right) but I forgot about them all until the end because of the shift in emphasis.
The ending is very dark, particularly given the light that immediately precedes it.
Thanks for your review because I wouldn’t have been looking out for this otherwise.
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Glad you enjoyed this one. It boggles your brain in a delightful way. Do you think you will try any others by Bardin?
I got the same omnibus as you – although with a much more disturbing distorted photograph cover, so I’m looking forward to Philip Banter, but based on an entry in 501 Must Read Books maybe not so much Blue Fly.
Yeah Blue Fly was the weakest one for me.
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