Wed 18 Feb 2015
by Bill Pronzini
JOHN FRANKLIN BARDIN – The Deadly Percheron. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1946. Reprints include: MacFadden Bartell, paperback, 1968; Penguin, paperback, 1988; Poisoned Pen Press, trade paperback, 1998; Centipede Press, 2006.
New York psychiatrist George Matthews is visited by a young man named Jacob Blunt who wears flowers in his hair, gives away quarters to people on the street, and fears he is losing his mind — all because of the manipulation of three-foot-tall “leprechauns.”
Matthews doesn’t believe in the leprechauns, of course, but neither does he believe Blunt is anything but sane. He agrees to accompany the young man to meet one of the gnomes, Eustace, who looks suspiciously like a midget and who insists that Blunt now start giving away horses instead of quarters, beginning with a Percheron to the star of a hit Broadway show.
The star turns up murdered, the man the police arrest as Jacob Blunt turns out to be an imposter, and an attempt is made on Matthews’s life in a subway station. At which point matters really become bizarre. Matthews wakes up in a mental hospital some six months later, suffering from partial amnesia and with a hideous scar disfiguring his face.
It is only after he adopts an entirely new identity that he is able to effect a release from the hospital and to begin, torturously, to piece his life back together and seek out the truth about the strange events surrounding Jacob Blunt, the leprechauns, and the deadly Percheron.
A most unusual and ingeniously constructed mystery up to a point. Suspense is high throughout, and there are some forcefully written scenes. But the book’s weaknesses far outweigh its strengths. Other scenes and much of the plot strain credulity to the breaking point, the characterization is weak (Matthews isn’t very likeable, for one), the dialogue is stilted, and the explanation behind all the bizarre happenings is downright silly. All in all, The Deadly Percheron is a vaguely irritating and unsatisfying novel.
Bardin has his admirers, who praise the hallucinatory quality of this and such other mysteries as The Last of Philip Banter (1947), Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly (1948), Purloining Tiny (1978), and four published under the pseudonyms Gregory Tree and Douglas Ashe. But he is definitely an acquired taste, like olives and rutabagas.
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.