I’ve been approaching John Franklin Bardin’s work in order, but it’s really the title of “The Last of Philip Banter” that piqued my interest in the author. It’s an intriguing name, especially for a Golden Age era mystery novel, and I found myself needing to know what it referred to.
My first read by Banter was the quirky novel The Deadly Percheron: a New York set mystery following a man suffering from amnesia trying to piece his life back together after being thrown into an insane asylum. Not quite my cup of tea on the surface (especially with the amnesia angle), but it turned out to be interesting, if not the type of mystery I was looking for. Well, The Last of Philip Banter is just as quirky of a read, and much to my chagrin we get more amnesia.
Philip Banter (the title character, not the novel) is an alcoholic. Not the “whee, we’re having fun” zany-antics alcoholism that you might associate with the Golden Age. No, this is some dark brutal alcoholism. Banter has come to find himself starting his days coming out of a full black out drunk stupor, and within minutes he’s back on the sauce. One morning he finds a stack of papers titled “The Confession” next to his typewriter. Leafing through the pages, he’s puzzled to find a self-written diary of events that he simply can’t remember. He’s even more perplexed when he realizes that the story on the page is dated in the future. And wouldn’t you know it, later on that day, the events start to become true…
Honestly at this point I was heavily tempted to put the book down. I wanted to read a mystery. I didn’t want the whole amnesia trope. I didn’t want to read about someone getting drunk and getting into weird situations viewed through the lens of alcohol. I wanted a body in the library and a good country house.
The more that I read though, the more I got sucked into the story. After reading “The Confession”, it’s somewhat captivating to watch the same events unfold, and there’s this conflict of whether you want the circumstances to fully play out, or for Banter to break free from his apparent destiny.
The whole “wake up from a blackout, find a confession of future events, watch the premonition come true” premise repeats itself several times over the course of the novel. Any semi-skeptical reader will immediately question whether Banter is being manipulated, and that’s no spoiler as that thought is at the forefront of the character’s own narration throughout. And therein lies what I suppose you’d call the mystery. If this book is to be of the fair play sort that we expect from the era, then there has to be a rational explanation behind it all. Bardin teases us with several glimpses behind the curtain throughout, but it’s done in such a way that you can’t quite comprehend what is fully taking place.
This isn’t quite the type of mystery that I typically want to read – it’s also fairly depressing – but I got swept up in some of the plot lines, especially the romantic tension. Philip Banter certainly isn’t a hero – he’s flat out misogynistic at times – but I think you can’t quite help but cheer him on to overcome a world that seems set against him.
The Last of Philip Banter doesn’t read at all like your typical mystery – it’s more nightmarish noir – and yet in the end, Bardin somehow pulls a semi-conventional detective story denouement out of thin air, and the book ends feeling like you just read a detective novel. Things wrapped up a bit quickly and neatly for my taste though; there were some aspects that could have used more explanation, and I think we’ll all roll our eyes regarding the fate of the villain.
I’m not going to give this any sort of enthusiastic endorsement, but it’s yet another entry in the category of “you probably don’t think you’d want to read this, but you might actually like it”. That’s the type of read that I seem to be stumbling into a lot lately, although it’s much preferred to the “meh” reads I’ve been hitting as well.
I have one last “mystery” published under the name of John Franklin Bardin – the intriguingly named Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly – although I’ve tracked down a few books that he published under pseudonyms. I’m not going to rush out to read Bardin again, but I’ll keep him in my pocket for when I want something from out of left field.