Sunday, 23 August 2015

Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly

That’s the title of a novel by the American writer John Franklin Bardin, first published, to an underwhelming reception, in 1948. Penguin republished it in their well-known green covered Crime series much later; presumably they thought that pretending it was a ‘crime’ novel would increase sales. The blurb by Julian Symons (who should have known better and perhaps did, but many are the things people will do if paid) says it ‘belongs to the world of Highsmith and even Poe’, which is nonsense. It belongs, if anywhere, to the very small group — hardly a ‘genre’ — of convincing accounts of psychosis.

The story concerns a concert harpsichord player, who has a mental breakdown following her seduction as a student by a predatory folk-singer. Thereafter she becomes increasingly doolally, the momentum of her madness being given fresh impulse every now and again by the re-appearance (real or imaginary) of the folk-singer with his signature tune, the old black plantation song ‘The Blue-Tailed Fly’.

For most of the book the protagonist is pretty obviously psychotic. One plausible aetiology of psychosis is that the psychotic, finding the ‘real’ world intolerable, retreats into a made-up one. He or she can get away with this indefinitely, provided that the rules of the made-up world don’t make him or her do anything socially unacceptable, and provided no-one tries to ‘cure’ him. (As Ronnie Laing said, curing is for bacon, not people.) Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was so well-surrounded by a wall of sycophants that she was able to believe right to the end that the world was exactly as she told us it was. It is only when something goes ‘wrong’ that the psychotic falls into a chaotic hell. Very often, as in this book, what goes wrong is the well-meaning but disastrous efforts of therapists, friends and relatives to convince the psychotic that her world is not the ‘real’ one: to the extent that these efforts succeed, her suffering increases and will often be so intense as to kill her. There is some truth in the old-fashioned notion that madmen should be ‘humoured’.

This is a fascinating book, but its republication in an inappropriate series is likely to decrease rather than increase its readership: people looking for a detective story will give up after a few pages, and people looking for accounts of madness are unlikely to look at green-covered Penguins. Fortunately I am usually on the look-out for both, which is how I came to read it. I was lucky to find a copy; I recommend it to anyone else who can find another; I’m keeping mine.


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