By John Franklin Bardin (Millipede Press; 1946/2006)
The first novel by the late John Franklin Bardin, a most unique noir potboiler that stands as something of a high mark in the literature of psychological displacement. Much of the novel’s critical attention has tended to focus on the opening chapter (from Karl Edward Wagner’s Twilight Zone Magazine” Fantasy Five-Foot Bookshelf” entry: “The opening chapter defies description. Imagine one of those 1930 screwball comedies with the crazy situations, but substitute malevolence for humor”), whereas the focus should, I believe, be on THE DEADLY PERCHERON’S middle section, which is as mind-bending in its audacious twisting of reality as anything written by Philip K. Dick or Jorge Luis Borges.
Of course, that first chapter is quite striking in its own right. Related in the haughty, superior voice of George Matthews, a psychiatrist, the opening chapter involves Jacob Blunt, an odd young man with a flower in his hair who complains to Matthews about leprechauns who force him to do peculiar things. Against his better instincts Matthews agrees to accompany Jacob to a meeting with one of the offending leprechauns, which leads to a succession of events in which Matthews behaves in a manner that he himself admits is inexplicable, and concludes with him living a penniless existence–and with an entirely new identity.
It’s in the middle chapters that the details of Matthews’ new identity, one John Brown, are made clear. How George Matthews suddenly became John Brown, or if he was in fact John Brown all along and his existence as George Matthews was a hallucination, are left (initially) vague. The reader, in this sense, is placed in the same position as Matthews/Brown, who finds himself caught up in a schizophrenic nightmare from which there doesn’t appear to be any escape.
This involves a definite tonal shift from the gently comedic screwball of the early pages, and there’s an even more dramatic change to come, when later in the story a horrific episode of torture comes to light. Bardin handles the shifts with great aplomb, with the prose never losing its pointed rationality and the storytelling fully retaining its page-turning fervor.
The book’s final third is admittedly less compelling than the earlier sections. Here the proceedings become more detective story oriented, with a dogged investigator joining the fray and the narrative leading to a disappointingly conventional (and scarcely plausible) conclusion. Still, what ultimately resonates about THE DEADLY PERCHERON is its authentically nightmarish sense of misplaced identity and altered reality.
The 2006 Millipede Press edition of this book, FYI, contains a chapter from Bardin’s never-published final novel I LOVE YOU, TERRIBLY, involving an unidentified killer who targets an attractive model on a train. It’s an intriguing fragment, but far too scant to make much of an impression.