John Franklin Bardin came to my attention when I spotted his second novel, The Last of Philip Banter, as a 2005 entry in the Honkaku Mystery Best 10. The annual mystery guide features some amazing novels that will be familiar to anyone who has delved into the cream of the crop of the Golden Age. What I like most about the list is that it isn’t made up solely of the obvious entries (The Hollow Man, And Then There Were None, etc, etc), but enough deep cuts that it’s obvious the editors know what they’re doing.
Anyway, The Last of Philip Banter is a curious enough title that it piqued my interest, and in seeking out the book I discovered that I could grab Penguin editions of Bardin’s entire library (he only published three books) for a steal. With so few stories, I figured I’d take them in order, and so here I am with Bardin’s first – The Deadly Percheron.
The title of the book refers to a horse delivered to an actress’s Manhattan apartment as some sort of joke – moments before she’s found dead with a knife in her back. Although the murder occurs forty pages into the story, we’ve encountered enough odd situations by that time to fill most novels. And believe me, we’re just getting started. You see, The Deadly Percheron is a story where a bunch of weird shit happens. This is one of those waking nightmare mysteries – most comparable to maybe The Red Right Hand, The Punch and Judy Murders, or The Devil Drives – where you start with one story, and soon find yourself reading something very different than you expected. The trick with these is that you can’t really describe them without ruining the fun; best to sit back and take it in raw.
The Deadly Percheron is an engrossing read – as this sort of tale inevitably is – shuffling narratives and expectations constantly. It’s stories within stories, and at any point in the book you’re likely reading something very different than you expected thirty pages prior. Amnesia plays a big part, and honestly I can’t stand amnesia plots, but somehow Bardin played it off in a way where I was willing to go with the flow.
The Deadly Percheron isn’t a tale of detection, although there certainly is a murder and a detective in it. It’s more a tale of revenge and a man trying to sift through the mystery of months stolen from his memory. It all comes together in the end though much like a mystery should, and although there are no shocking surprises, you get plenty of revelations to tie everything up.
I walked away satisfied enough – not enamored, mind you – but as timed passed, I realized that the whole plot didn’t really make much sense. The brilliance of a book like, say, The Red Right Hand, is that when the fog is lifted you realize that there’s a perfectly straightforward and somewhat conventional Golden Age mystery that the author has hidden right before your eyes. As a reader, you’ve been manipulated into making a set of assumptions, and looking back, there’s a beautiful clarity. Not so with The Deadly Percheron.
While John Franklin Bardin created a captivating read when experienced in the order that he told it, and with the blinders he placed on the reader, the story doesn’t really hold up if you review exactly what happened in the order it happened. You have people going through an enormous amount of effort – and maybe more importantly, spending ridiculous amounts of time and taking absurd risks – all to… I don’t really know? The explanation given at the end of the book kind of felt like it worked at the time I read it, but looking back I think I was just hungry for answers.
Still, The Deadly Percheron is an engrossing read, and a story that will linger in my mind for some time. I’m looking forward to Bardin’s second book The Last of Philip Banter, confident that I’ll get something interesting, whatever it may be.