I first encountered the works of John Franklin Bardin back in 1976, when Penguin published The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus, a collection of Bardin’s first three novels introduced by the British crime writer, Julian Symons. Although bearing the trademark green spine of Penguin’s mystery and crime line, the Omnibus seemed to have less in common with your typical mystery than it did with, say, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.
The Deadly Percheron (1946), in particular, has a fair number of parallels with The Third Policeman: the same hallucinogenic atmosphere, the simultaneous sense of hilarity and dread, and a certain unmistakable Irishness–real leprechauns in Bardin’s case. The Last of Philip Banter (1947) is something of a recurring nightmare, as the alcoholic Banter finds himself waking from blackouts and being greeted by his own confessions to murder. And Devil Take the Blue Tail Fly (1948) is almost completely surreal, with a heroine who may or may not be suffering from multiple personality disorder and may or may not be imagining that she bashed a man’s head in.
Bardin kept on writing and publishing, although under the pseudonyms Gregory Tree and Daniel Ashe several times, at a steady rate, piling up a total of nine novels by 1954. None of them sold all that well, and only the first three earned a quiet word-of-mouth reputation for their originality and power. Then Bardin, it appears, stopped writing for over twenty years, putting his energies into a series of jobs in the advertising and magazine business.
Purloining Tiny popped up out of nowhere in 1978. Perhaps the critical acclaim the John Franklin Bardin back in 1976, when Penguin published Omnibus received inspired Bardin, or Harper & Row, or both, to publish the book. Whatever the motive, the result was a flop, commercially and artistically.
There are fragments of the wonderful bizarre logic of Bardin’s first three novels in Purloining Tiny. The Tiny of the title is Sheila (or is it Patricia?) “Tiny” Barrett, who got her nickname when recovering from polio, but who has grown into a statuesque blonde. With her step-father, Joel, she appears frequently on television in magic acts with an overt S&M theme, often involving medieval instruments of torture. She is kidnapped by her real father, Harry Barratt, who has evolved over the decades since his wife ran off with their little girl from loser to hit-man to courier for an international crime syndicate. Harry holds her in a soundproof, hermetically sealed, all-white apartment he’s had constructed two floors below Tiny and Joel’s penthouse in Manhattan.
But none of it holds together. We get a tossed salad of violence and kinky sex, with incest and S&M sprinkled in like croutons. We get a villain–Harry–who considers himself an agent of Puritanical redemption all the while that he is beating up, knifing, shooting, and tossing people out windows. Bardin gives Tiny the ingenuity to figure her way out of the apartment within hours the first time and then expects us to believe she would then put up with weeks of confinement and psychological abuse with barely a fight. Oh, and when the detective shows up in the last two chapters to solve the case, he’s suffering from constipation.
Had George Romero made the story into one of his low-budget oddball horror films, something along the lines of Martin, there might have been something redeeming about the badness of Purloining Tiny. But it lacks the deliberation that keeps a good bad book from completely disintegrating. It’s just bad bad.
Let this one keep on collecting dust and order a copy of The John Franklin Bardin Omnibus instead.