John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron; with thanks to Crimefest 2011 in general and Peter Guttridge in particular

July 24, 2011 at 6:05 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, To Britain and back 2011)

Ah,yes: The Deadly Percheron.

The what?

A Percheron is a type of draft horse originating in the province of Le Perche, in France. An informative (and refreshingly poetical) piece on the breed’s history can be found on the site of The Percheron Horse Association of America. In Bardin’s novel, this animal – and I mean the real thing, not a picture representation or a stuffed toy- is used as a calling card, not once but twice, by a supremely cunning criminal.

First published in 1946, The Deadly Percheron takes place in New York City in the early 1940s. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Jacob Blunt was my last patient. He came into my office wearing a scarlet hibiscus in his curly blond hair. He sat down in the easy chair across from my desk, and said, ‘Doctor, I think I’m losing my mind.’

At first, I thought I was in for a lighthearted romp. I could not have been more wrong.

Jacob Blunt’s delusions, if delusions they be, are so fantastical that psychiatrist George Matthews feels a powerful urge to investigate them beyond the confines of his examining room. Jacob invites Dr. Matthews to accompany him back to his apartment, and thence, to a  bar. Driven by is curiosity, Matthews accedes to his new patient’s request.

At Jacob’s apartment, the doctor meets two young and lovely women. But this is just a brief stop on the way to the real destination: the bar, where according to Jacob, they will meet a leprechaun. When they reach their destination on Third Avenue, the doctor observes that “…a large van had been parked in front of the place–a truck with deep sides and screened windows near the roof of its storage space not unlike an oversize paddy wagon.” He wonders idly about the van’s contents but then forgets about it almost at once, so focused is he on what or whom he and Jacob are about to encounter.

Inside the bar is the “leprechaun.”

Inside the van is the Percheron.

From that point on, things become increasingly weird. Then suddenly George finds himself imprisoned in a nightmare scenario straight out of Kafka.

One of the best things about this novel is the author’s evocation of 1940s Manhattan. The establishment alluded to above is “the usual Third Avenue bar room with Rheingold neon signs in the windows and sawdust on the tile floor.” Coney Island also figures prominently in this narrative. Here’s a description of the clientele that typically patronize one of the island’s eateries in the late evening hours:

Brassy blondes, flashily made-up redheads, rarely a glossy headed brunette, showgirls, wives of entrepreneurs, lady shills…as well as their masculine counterparts in checked suits and pointed-toe shoes, barkers,  grifters who operated the ‘sucker’ games, pitchmen and the ‘big boys’ who owned the concessions.

The writing is excellent. I’d love to quote more of it, but it would be hard to do without giving too much of the plot away. My coming to this novel “cold” had a lot to do with how much I enjoyed it.

John Franklin Bardin was born in Cincinnati in 1916. In 1944 he moved to New York City, where in addition to writing novels, he worked as an advertising executive, journalist, and teacher. Click here for a short but informative biographical sketch provided by Centipede Press.

***************************

I had never heard of either John Franklin Bardin or his extraordinary novel before this past May. For me, one of the highlights of Crimefest 2011 was the panel discussion entitled “In Name Only: Forgotten Authors.” The first speaker in the group was novelist and critic Peter Guttridge. It was his enthusiastic recommendation that led me to read The Deadly Percheron.

I’ll have more to say about this panel discussion and about Crimefest in general in subsequent posts. Meanwhile, see if you can get your hands on this book.( It’s out of print, naturally; I think I got my copy, a Poisoned Pen Press reissue, from Abebooks.com.) Once you’ve got it, be prepared to be up late reading it. The Deadly Percheron may be the most compelling and thoroughly original novel I’ve  read so far this year. 

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