The Deadly Percheron, the 1946 noir novel by John Franklin Bardin, has what can only be described as an audacious beginning. The first person protagonist – Dr George Matthews, a psychiatrist – receives his last client of the day, a young man named Jacob Blunt, who believes that a number of leprechauns are paying him to perform bizarre and trivial tasks: give away money; whistle in public; wear very specific flowers in his hair; and so on. Matthews decides Jacob is most likely delusional, but accompanies him to a bar that evening, where the pair meet one of the leprechauns, who appears to confirm Blunt’s story, and gives him a new task: give away a horse – the percheron of the title – to a famous actress. The next morning, that actress has been murdered, and Jacob Blunt has been arrested at the scene, in possession of a horse. After some discussion, Blunt is released into George Matthews’s custody – except the man who comes up from the cells is not the man Matthews met the day before…
… and there you are. You’re already sold on that, or else you aren’t. Reading the story is a little like taking a seat on an aeroplane, which ascends into the clouds in a way that suggests it won’t ever be able to land in a satisfactory manner. As the book progresses, up and up that narrative plane keeps going. You continue reading, confident that this is a book – it was published; it is renowned, however quietly - and so the narrative must eventually land. And yet up and up you seem to keep going.
Actually, once that astonishing opening is out of the way, a substantial portion of the book hinges on amnesia. Our narrator, George, loses his identity and, according to the calendar, nearly a year of his life. These sections are nicely written (and far more vividly so than his previous everyday existence). But amnesia it is, and however realistically it is rendered, there’s still the sneaking suspicion that the revelations as his memory gradually returns are more at the narrative’s convenience than that of realistic psychology. The story of those missing months is fairly straightforward, but amnesia turns it into plot. I was reminded of L Ron Hubbard’s Fear, in which the amnesiac main character receives the warning: ”If you find your hat you’ll find your four hours. If you find your four hours then you will die.”. Tantalising, but it runs the risk of suggesting to the reader that the story has already happened, and that what’s happening now is the author withholding it to maximise drama. Regardless, as dramatic and bizarre as those clouds might look, the story still has to land.
In terms of that cumbersome metaphor, The Deadly Percheron does land – although the last quarter might be described as a series of sudden, slightly jolting drops. Perhaps it would be difficult for it to be otherwise. But it works overall, and the whole is clearly both lovingly and carefully written. Everything is coherent and makes sense; I mean, it’s a good book. And I suppose the plots of many crime novels are superficially convoluted, unlikely, and equally ridiculous at heart. Perhaps there’s a lesson there. Bardin, at least, has a horse outside.