"Then Something Snapped Inside Me": The Psychiatrist as Noir Protagonist in John Franklin Bardin's: 'The Deadly Percheron' (1946)

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A common motif in one variety of American Noir crime fiction of the 1940's was the sudden violation of settled existence through some indiscriminate stab of a malign fate, or through the unprompted explosion of violent mayhem into perfectly ordinary lives. Secure domestic heavens disintegrate at one stroke into angst-ridden hells of suspicion and despair, and unremarkable lives are shattered by dark, disruptive forces and transformed into nightmares of paranoid terror. As this particular expression of Noir would have it, we live permanently on the brink of disaster, individual security and identity are illusions, and the boundary separating mundane normality from the threat of chaos and annihilation is eggshell thin--there can indeed be darkness at noon. Some of the most dramatic examples of this version of the zeitgeist appear in novels like Cornell Woolrich's Phantom Lady (1942) and The Black Angel (1943). In both of these, the complacent world of the young suburban middle-class is smashed by murder, treachery, and conspiracy, with the narrative turning on the attempt to restore some semblance of the lost equilibrium by exposing the guilty and exonerating the innocent. According to the standard historical interpretation, the social and imaginative groundings for this very popular theme could be traced to the widespread anxiety and dislocations of the Depression of the 1930's; the deprivations and upheavals of World War II would then ensure its survival into the later 1940's. Contemporaneous with Woolrich, and working in a similar vein, was another crime novelist, John Franklin Bardin, who in a period of only eighteen months produced a remarkable trilogy of novels in The Deadly Percheron (1946), The Last of Philip Banter (1947), and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly (1948)--described by Julian Symons as "distinguished by an extraordinary intensity of feeling, and by an absorption in morbid psychology remarkable for the period" (8). (1) It was Bardin's interest in states of psychiatric disorder (particularly schizophrenia, paranoia, and amnesia), and in their roots and manifestations, that differentiated his work from the literary Noir mainstream, which frequently involved mentally imbalanced protagonists, but usually with only passing reference to the clinical aspects (in film, however, we might note that Alfred Hitchcock's movie of 1945, Spellbound, had already involved a psychiatrist protagonist and had also dealt with the theme of amnesia). Woolrich's fiction is a case in point; his characters' aberrant mental states are usually glossed over in superficial terms and generally revolve narrowly around certain very limited and exaggerated emotional responses--the traumatic death of a beloved, for example, and the homicidal obsession with revenge and justice that ensues, as with the psychotic Johnny Marr in Rendezvous in Black (1948). (2) Indeed, Woolrich's Marr stands out as a crudely drawn caricature of mental derangement alongside the schizophrenic concert harpsichordist, Ellen Purcell, the far more convincing protagonist of Bardin's Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly, which also appeared in 1948 and which remains probably the most effective Noir exploration of insanity and one of the sharpest deconstructions of established psychiatry.

That Bardin's contribution to the canon has continued to be so comprehensively overlooked, at a time when Noir (or Neo-Noir) is once again chic, is as puzzling as the enigmas that drive his plots. (3) Like those of Woolrich, his narratives deal with similar themes of personality dislocation, identity shifts, the adoption of the alter ego, and self-distantiation, but in an altogether more subtle and less luridly Gothic format, and always seem more plausibly rooted in a matter-of-fact reality. Woolrich's fiction of the early 1940's had established the Noir mood and mannerisms in broad strokes; Bardin's post-war version presented a more nuanced and informed rendition. …