RARA-AVIS: John Franklin Bardin

From: Paul Duncan ( Paul.Duncan@asml.nl)
Date: 03 Jul 2000

John Franklin Bardin: Then Something Snapped Inside Me

Each of John Franklin Bardin's three great Noir novels begin with a weird, whimsical and, at the same time, worrying situation. He then spends the next 200 pages explaining how the surreal is real, and that abnormal psychology is a normal state for most people. Along the way, his central characters doubt the reality of their circumstances, break away from their normal lives and see the world in a different light. In Bardin's books the insane are the most normal people you are likely to meet.

In the UK, he was admired by the likes of Kingsley Amis, Edmund Crispin, Roy Fuller and Julian Symons (the latter supplying an illuminating introduction in the 1976 collection of the three great works). Symons compared Bardin to Edgar Allan Poe (for the hallucinogenic nature of the stories) and Patricia Highsmith (for treating abnormal psychology as an everyday occurrence) and I cannot help but agree with him.

In The Deadly Percheron (Dodd, US, 1946), a pleasant young man, Jacob Blunt, walks into the office of psychiatrist Dr George Matthews and, after a short conversation, is relieved to find out he is mad. The reason? A little man is giving Jacob $10 a day to wear a flower in his hair. Another little man is paying him $10 a day to give away $20 in quarters. Yet another pays for him to whistle at Carnegie Hall during performances. Jacob fears that if it is all true, then leprechauns and fairies and elves and goblins really do exist. Dr Matthews decides to accompany Jacob and finds too much of his story to be true. Dr Matthews begins to doubt his own sanity and he knows that is not such a good thing for a psychiatrist. Then, he is knocked out, awakes maybe a year later, in hospital, finds he has a new identity, and must prove himself to be compos mentis. He becomes a different man to get out of hospital. As John Brown, looking like someone who has seen better days, he gets a job as a waiter and busboy. Then he is run down by a car and his face is horribly disfigured. It is as though his mind and body were being slowly chopped away to find out what he is really made of. And then things take a turn for the worst.

(If you look carefully at Neil Jordan's film Mona Lisa (1986), you will find references to Bardin. At one point, a large white Percheron appears outside a roadside café® Also, the mechanic, played by Robbie Coltrane, is reading the 1976 Omnibus edition of Bardin's work.)

Dr Matthews also turns up as a supporting character in Bardin's next book. The Last Of Philip Banter (Dodd, US, 1947) has a great premise that could easily have been borrowed by Italo Calvino or Paul Auster. An advertising executive, Philip Banter, is under a lot of pressure at work, has a drink problem and a difficult wife. He arrives at work and finds a small pile of paper on his desk. The manuscript, supposedly written by him the next day tells, in retrospect, the events of that day. It gives his most innermost thoughts. As the day progresses, the events in the manuscript unfold in minute detail. The same thing happens the next day. And the day after that. The manuscript is frighteningly accurate and Philip Banter dreads going into the office to discover what new horrors await him. The novel follows Banter's mental disintegration.

Both these novels are suffused with a feeling of helplessness. For all of Dr Matthews' efforts, for all of his knowledge and intelligence and ingenuity, in the end he fails at every point to prevent the deaths occurring around him.

Written in six weeks, taken from an agent's office by Victor Gollancz and published without revision, Devil Take The Blue-Tail Fly (Gollancz , UK, 1948) is a white-heat, fever-dream of a novel that constantly keeps you on your toes. It begins with Ellen in her cell, in a mental institution. Today is the day, the day she is going home. She has to be careful. She has to watch what she says and does in front of everybody. They must think that she is normal. She knows that she is normal, but they do not. She must not do anything which makes them suspicious.

When she is released, Ellen returns to her husband Basil, and returns to reality. Only, something is not quite right. There is something askew with the world. Ellen is a musician. She plays a harpsichord. She is highly strung. There is her doctor, Dr Danzer, to whom she recounts her dreams.

This novel is about the pain of creation, and the joy of destruction. It is a dance, a dance of death. It soon becomes apparent who is Ellen's dancing partner - herself. Or rather, her other self.

It is a story told to a slow beat and its tense atmosphere is reminiscent of Roman Polanski's film Repulsion (1965).


Born November 30 1916 in Cincinnati, Ohio, after attending high school, Bardin began at the University of Cincinnati. However, misfortune devastated the family. An elder sister died of septicaemia, and his father (a coal merchant by trade) died of a coronary. With no money to support the family, Bardin was forced to leave the University during his first year and got a regular job as a ticket taker and bouncer at a roller rink. He was there for four years. "I believe that the social contact with thousands of people a night helped me to become a writer and possibly offset my lack of a college education," he told Contemporary Authors. What he did not tell that illustrious institution was that by this time his mother has become a paranoid schizophrenic.
"It was on visits to her that I first had an insight into the 'going home' hallucinations," he told Julian Symons, referring to Ellen's thoughts at the beginning of Devil Take The Blue-Tail Fly.

While working at a bookshop during the day, Bardin spent his nights educating himself and reading. He cited his influences as Graham Greene, Henry Green and Henry James. Although one can see the energy and perversion of some of Graham Greene's 'entertainments' - Brighton Rock, for example - in Bardin's work, it is hard to discern anything more from his preferred reading matter.

In 1943, Bardin joined the Edwin Bird Wilson advertising agency, established himself financially, married and had two children. It was during this period that he began his feverish writing, resulting in his Noir trilogy being published over 18 months. Looking back, one can see how each book became more personal - the first is surreal, the second is the mental disintegration of an advertising executive and the third a mad woman's descent into schizophrenia.

Over the next 20 years, he rose to the position of vice-president and member of board of directors of Edwin Bird Wilson. Towards the end of this period, from 1961 to 66, Bardin ran a writers' workshop at New York's New School For Social Research. He also divorced and remarried. Bardin concentrated on editorial duties (senior editor at Coronet from 1968 to 72, then managing editor of Today's Health (1972 to 73) and Barrister And Learning And The Law (1973 to 74)) and then had a seven-year period as a freelance writer before dying in New York on July 9 1981.

After his 'black' novels Bardin wrote The Burning Glass (Scribner, US, 1950) which intriguingly opens with a character suffocating inside a coffin. The book is a day in the life of free-living, irresponsible artists and intellectuals at a summer colony. Their behavior is copied and commented upon by a 12-year-old boy, which Bardin uses to both comic and horrific effect. He followed this with the overly sentimental Christmas Comes But Once A Year (Scribner, US, 1953). Between their publication, Bardin was very prolific, writing novels as Douglas Ashe (A Shroud For Grandmama (Scribner, US, 1951), also published as The Long-Street Legacy (Paperback Library, US, 1970)) and Gregory Tree (The Case Against Myself (Scribner, US, 1950), The Case Against Butterfly
(Scribner, US, 1951), and So Young To Die (Scribner, US, 1953)). These also feature some dark and wondrous characters, but they fail to capture the Noir edge of his first three efforts.

After Julian Symons tracked down Bardin to ask him questions for Penguin's 1976 Omnibus edition of Bardin's three Noir novels, Bardin decided to work on another novel. The result was the difficult to find Purloining Tiny (Harper, US, 1978).

Bardin told Contemporary Authors, "There is only one motive for writing a novel: to be published and read. To me there is no distinction between the mystery novel and the novel, only between good books and bad books. A good book takes the reader into a new world of experience; it is an experiment. A bad book, unless the writing is inept, reinforces the intransigent attitude of the reader not to experiment with a new world." As well written as his other novels were, they could not compare to the touch of personal agony that he brought to his early work.


# To unsubscribe, say "unsubscribe rara-avis" to majordomo@icomm.ca.
# The web pages for the list are at http://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/ .

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 03 Jul 2000 EDT