“When the circus was here last year I was away, helping to bury my brother-in-law. It was the only thing I ever did for my brother-in-law that I didn’t immediately regret afterwards.” (Dodo to Minto)
Crime blended with humour can work well–and it can also be a tasteless disaster. Rest easy crime fans, Alan Melville’s Death of Anton from British Library Crime Classics is a delight.
As the cover indicates, this is a novel that focuses on a circus– Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie to be precise, which arrives in town for a number of performances. Also in town is Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Minto who is dealing with family problems (namely a younger sister with a penchant for trouble who insists on marrying a gormless vacuum cleaner salesman).
Detective Inspector Minto strikes up a conversation with a man in the hotel dining room, and the man, who is the circus clown Dodo, mentions, before he realizes that he’s confiding in a Scotland Yard police detective, that the circus is a hotbed of crime:
No, Mr Minto, if it’s crime you’re after. Carey’s is the place for it. Theft, immorality, blackmail-you’ll find all the pretties there.
This incident turns out to be significant when the circus lion tamer, Anton, is found dead in the lion cage. First appearances indicate that he was mauled to death, but in reality, he’s been murdered, and someone’s made a clumsy attempt to cover up the crime.
Minto becomes an instant fan of the circus, and when he’s also befriended by some of the circus workers, naturally he becomes embroiled in solving the crime. There’s no shortage of suspects. Scraping away the facade of the circus as some sort of ‘family,’ we see that there was some funny business between Anton and the womanizing owner, Joseph Carey who makes many enemies through his “amorous adventures.” Anton stirred the jealousy of a another circus performer, and there’s also Anton’s ex-partner, Miller, who was kicked out of the lion act. Before Anton’s murder, there’s a wonderful section which details Anton’s performance in the ring with the tigers, and the tension and very real threat of violence is well conveyed. Circus life may be non-traditional, but it’s also portrayed as slightly claustrophobic, distilled into a microcosm, full of rivalries and tensions. The married trapeze artists, Loretta and Lorimer are perfect examples of this; husband and wife squabble over her behaviour, and whereas an ‘ordinary couple’ might stew in silent rage, we see how trust is so important when you are swinging, passing from one trapeze bar to another, 100s of feet up in the air without a net below. ‘Mistakes’ in timing are fatal, so trapeze performers need marital bliss or risk death.
The delight here comes in the humour, and we see the dynamics of the Minto family set within the construct of the crime. Early on in the novel, the murderer confesses to Detective Inspector Minto’s brother who is a priest. Father Minto won’t reveal the confessor and DS Minto wishes that his brother “had stuck to his original idea of becoming an engine driver.”
I knew very early in this novel that I was going to love it. Here’s Minto questioning Mr. Carey
“What did you find?” asked Mr. Carey. He seemed a little worried about this.
“Never mind. And stop asking me questions. It’s most disconcerting. I’ve lost the place now–where were we? Oh yes. Anton, for the third and last time, was killed during the party–probably between midnight and one-thirty. So that anyone who wasn’t at the party at that time is under suspicion. Clark Gable, for instance. The Emir of Transjordania, for example. Or the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Or you… You left the party about half past twelve, didn’t you? You’d any amount of time to do it. Much more time than Mr. Gable or the Emir of Transjordania. In fact I think we can safely wipe them out. I’m not so sure about the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He might have been addressing a meeting in the district, and nipped over and done it.”
I follow several other crime bloggers and they all reviewed this novel enthusiastically too, so I’d say if you are at all interested in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction or British Library Crime Classics, give this one a go.
(I thought Catholic priests were required to report crimes as serious as murder so I looked it up and apparently they aren’t. They keep quiet about child abuse, so why was I surprised.)
Finally for animal lovers, the tigers don’t fare well, and reading the book was a painful reminder about the lives of some of the animals (and an argument for the closing of all animal acts.)