Having very much enjoyed my first experience of Bardin’s work, The Deadly Percheron (1947), I was keen to sample more of his stories. I don’t often take in the opening quotes of mysteries, so keen am I to start the novel proper, but today I did pause for a few seconds at least and I think Bardin’s choice of quote aptly hints to the truth that the darkest moments in life, don’t necessarily have the fictionally expected gothic trapping, but come about through everyday interactions.
From this symbolic opening we are launched into the world of Philip Banter who has a bad hangover. He makes a detour to a bar for that well-known hair of the dog, before going into his office at his father in law’s advertising agency. He feels something bad happened last night, but cannot remember anything, except he can see he has a bad cut on his arm. Aside from being a heavy drinker, it also seems clear to one and all that he has quite the roving eye as well. He notices a manuscript on his desk and a typed page in his typewriter. It is a manuscript written as though by Philip Banter himself detailing events as though they have already happened. Yet they are not about last night, but based on the date they are more a prophecy of what will happen this evening. It is suitably called a ‘confession’ and of course as the manuscript unfolds the events that will be, Philip’s role in events become more and more dubious. How did this manuscript come into being? Did Philip write it himself? Why doesn’t he remember? It doesn’t help that he has been suffering from dizzy spells for some time, episodes of memory loss and hearing a voice talking to him, goading him about his need to remember. No reader will be surprised that when he arrives home that evening, events from the manuscript begin to come true…. though not in their entirety. Is there some kind of conspiracy afoot from those closest to him? Is there anything he can do to stop these predictions coming true?
As with my last Bardin review I have had to simplify down my synopsis of the plot, as Bardin’s plots are invariably of a web-like nature. Whilst Philip is trying to figure out what is going on, other characters around him are struggling with their own issues; creating and falling into moral traps of their own devising.
The opening chapters are very clever as they begin with Philip’s own perspective on his life, which is then followed by the ‘Confession’ and is completed by his wife and father in law sharing their own concerns about him with a psychiatrist. Like my first Bardin read, the author is adept at concisely showing you over a series of pages that the opening gambit is not all that it appears to be. In some ways as the story unfolds I found the narrative to hold a dark and almost twisted variant on the central conceit Charles Dickens employs in A Christmas Carol. Whilst this cannot be considered a detective novel, there is a whodunit element in regards to who has written the manuscripts and at one point in the novel the “suspects” are gathered together to be suspected in turn.
The plot is less screwy than in The Deadly Percheron. This is not a criticism per say, but the plot of The Last of Philip Banter, focuses more on a primary twist which is then elaborated on, rather than a series of bizarre events unfolding, which have to be joined together at the end. The ending to today’s read though is still appropriately dramatic for a Bardin novel. In terms of plot events the reader gets full closure, but in terms of human conflict things are left more open ended. I found the ending made me think of the work of Patricia Highsmith (and not just because Aidan at MysteriesAhoy! has reviewed one of her novels today!). I think both writers approach character and relationship psychology in a similar way. Another writer to perhaps link in as well would be Helen McCloy, as all three produced stories which resonant with modern psychological crime novels. Looking at both Bardin novels that I have read, I enjoyed the first one a little more, but today’s read is still a brilliant one, though darker because of how much more personal the drama becomes.
Thankfully Bardin’s novels are not too hard to track down, his first three being considered his best. In fact these three have been reprinted a while ago as an omnibus edition, which can now be bought fairly cheaply online second hand. It goes without saying that I definitely recommend trying Bardin out.