The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin

Mr. Kaggsy is developing a bit of a reputation as the Finder of Interesting and Unusual Books; he always seems to come up trumps (sorry to use that word) for Christmas, birthdays and other significant occasions. One of his finds at the end of last year was an intriguing-looking omnibus of three novels by one John Franklin Bardin – an author I’d never heard of, and who was obviously obscure when this Penguin reissue came out in 1978. As far as I can see, he still is despite the efforts of the publisher and Julian Symons (who wrote the foreword) to introduce him to a new generation of readers. Which is a shame, because this book is a bit weird and wacky, but very, very compelling.

Bardin the man was obscure even when alive; the three novels in the omnibus were written in a burst of creativity between 1946 and 1948. As well as these, Bardin wrote other novels under his own name and crime books under a pseudonym, as well as living a conventional sounding life after a difficult start to life. His books seem to be a kind of cult secret amongst crime fiction fans and he never made the crossover to mainstream. Is there a reason in the books for that, you might wonder? Well, the title of my post might give you a little hint… ;D

“The Deadly Percheron” is narrator by Dr. George Matthews, a psychiatrist; as the story opens, he’s received a visit from one Jacob Blunt, a young man who fears he’s going mad. His appearance doesn’t help – wearing a scarlet hibiscus in your hair in 1946 was probably not de rigueur – and the fact that leprechauns are paying him to do so adds to the colourful nature of his story. Matthews is intrigued, and agrees to go along with Blunt to meet the leprechauns who dish out the money and the instructions. However, the first encounter with a little man in a bar is disappointing; they don’t seem to be the creature from legend who perches on your shoulder. Instead, this is simply someone with dwarfism, albeit dressed in a green velvet jacket. Eustace (for that’s his name) insists he *is* a leprechaun, but his instructions for Jacob have changed; instead of wearing a flower in his hair, or giving away quarters (a recent fancy), he now has to give away percherons (which are apparently big horses, in case you’re wondering, which I was). All of this is too much for George, who leaves Jacob to follow his instructions or do whatever he wants – things are obviously getting a little too weird for him…

However, things take a more serious turn when a famous actress is murdered and Jacob is arrested as the suspect. George visits the police station but finds that things are not quite what he expected; and a journey home involving a near miss on the underground causes him to lose control of his identity in a way that disorientates not only the psychiatrist but also the reader. It’s not long before we’re off on a roller-coaster of a journey while George tries to recover his identity and his sanity, as well as filling in some very large gaps in his (and our!) knowledge of events. But is he really who he says he was, or is he the ultimate unreliable narrator?

A percheron – a big horse apparently… (via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Deadly Percheron” turned out to be an unexpectedly dark and gripping read. George’s struggle to regain his identity is often painful; there is a hallucinatory feeling to the narrative, and we’re reminded of the horrors of many medical treatments of the time like ECT. Much of the action takes place in the seedy environs of Coney Island amongst carnival folk, and George has to be as adaptable as he can to survive there. I was often as much in the dark while I was reading as George was, which was obviously Bardin’s intention, and this made for an involving and often unsettling reading experience!

Bardin’s writing is clever, if occasionally a little stiff, and he’s a very singular author. I did find he reminded me a little of Dashiell Hammett (hence the post title!) as there is a high body count and a fair amount of violence. Bardin shares that sense of dark strangeness that often creeps into Hammett’s narrative, but there is a very individual extra element of weirdness in Bardin which is perhaps why he’s never made it to the mainstream. The solution and ending of the book came perhaps a little more rapidly than I would have liked, and was actually remarkably complex (and impossible to guess). Frankly, I was a little addled and breathless, and although the book is only a couple of hundred pages long, it’s quite a trip…

So Mr. Kaggsy does it again! Goodness knows where he came across mention of Bardin’s books (since he doesn’t read – he’s a film man!); but certainly this was one of his best finds. I’ll have to brace myself before I read the next book in the omnibus – goodness knows where the narrative will take me! 😀