#90: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Running Around with the Circus in Leo Bruce’s Case with Four Clowns (1939)

TNBs Travel

For my final post in this month’s Tuesday Night Bloggers focus on travel in Golden Age crime novels, I thought I’d deviate from the implicit notion of holiday in travel and instead look at itinerancy as explored in Leo Bruce’s fourth Sergeant Beef novel, Case with Four Clowns.  Last week I wrote about how John Dickson Carr made the aspect of travelling central to the mystery he created with ‘Cabin B-13’, and arguably Bruce does a similar thing here, albeit coming from a slightly different perspective and playing up to the travel aspect in a slightly more subtle way.

Bruce was, it’s fair to say, wise to the conventions of between-the-wars detective fiction, and his ruthlessness in playing both on and up to them is one of the factors that kept the genre fresh.  And so we have Sergeant William Beef, the dunderheaded local bobby who runs rings around the genius amateurs (Case for Three Detectives, recently reviewed by Kate here), the murder with no sign of a victim (Case Without a Corpse), the murderer who plans to commit a murder where they will have no connection with the victim and so be uncatchable (Case for Sergeant Beef) and the previous book in this series, Case with No Conclusion, whose plot is hard to summarise but whose ending – in true convention-baiting style – Bruce tells you on the very first page of Case with Four Clowns.  Spoilers, obviously, so be aware.

This time a gypsy’s warning about impending death at a circus brings Beef and his chronicler Lionel Townsend to said circus to watch and wait and see.  And, despite trying to go about their business incognito, Townsend is immediately tagged as either an artist or a writer:

“Must I be one or the other?” I asked, evading the question.

“They mostly are.”

“Who are they?”

“Oh, the people who travel with us for a time.  There’s always somebody following us around,  either painting pictures of people in the ring, of the wagons or the horses, or writing books and stories about circus life.”

As the book progresses we are given more glimpses into the separation from the everyday that travelling daily from one show to another brings – some of which will be discussed here – but nothing that catches it for me quite so heartbreakingly as this exchange.  The entire point of the circus show is to be gaped at, but the nature of the lifestyle brings this upon these people in their “off” time, too: they are always the subject of scrutiny, and this constant awareness of their lives being dissected and devoured as so delightfully different serves only to push them further from the rest of society and closer into themselves as a group.

What is wrung from this collective isolation is an extended character piece, and it was so very different from what I was expecting that I couldn’t help but be impressed.  There is some dark psychology in here, exploring a lot of ideas about the notion of identity and self-perception vs. how others see us and how that affects our behaviour…not your standard Golden Age romp, it must be said.  And so we have the attractive, confident Clem Gail, rushing out after the shows to bask in what attention he can garner from the local girls, but embarrassed to admit his role as a clown and instead taking credit as a trapeze artist…knowing that he’ll be gone the next day and so not have to face the consequences of his deceit.

Case with Four ClownsThe difficulties of forming any lasting emotional connection with anyone outside the circus are demonstrated by the slew of admirers the youthful, beautiful Corinne Jackson has trailing her from show to show…until the distance required to travel becomes too great and they lose interest.  The only beau of hers we meet in the entire book seems intent on getting her away from the circus, away from this transitory way of life, and yet it may well be that this isn’t what she wants herself.  Indeed, the sole romance experienced in the plot, and I shall not ruin it here, is commenced between two people already in the troupe and established in such a way that there need be no disruption to the established order of things.  Take this any way you like.

It’s also interesting to note that different groups don’t even feel themselves united in their exclusion: such is the culture and the atmosphere of disdain towards anyone from ‘outside’ that the presence of another circus taken as an opportunity for confrontation rather than camaraderie.  And when the members of this second troupe attend the show that Beef and Townsend’s cohorts put on, the air is decidedly tense and grudgingly unimpressed.  Even these fellow dispossessed can’t celebrate the successes of their kin, and if the people who know you the best are disinclined towards you, well, what chance of a normal life does anyone stand?

And so, as isolated as any snowbound cabin or island in storm-tossed seas, we have our cast.  One of them may be a murderer, at least one other their unknowing victim, and what better environment to foster the petty grudges, the magnified slights, and bruised egos and sharp elbows, than one in which is inescapable precisely because of the nature of the life these people lead?

Roll up, roll up…


I also submit this book for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Performer (Clown/Dancer/etc).

18 thoughts on “#90: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Running Around with the Circus in Leo Bruce’s Case with Four Clowns (1939)

  1. Interesting post JJ. The picture of troupe life you paint is an intriguing one. It would be interesting to compare this novel with the one by Gladys Mitchell which includes a travelling circus – can’t remember the name of it. Or Alan Melville’s Death of Anton. Interestingly in Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham, a character follows in his father’s foot steps and runs away to a circus of sorts at the end of the story – in this book the circus is a place of sanctuary and freedom. Think that is all the circus/troupe themed GAD novels I can think of! Out of curiosity why didn’t you add a rating to this post? Or is this a re-read for you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I have Death of Anton on my TBR and am curious to see how they compare. I was, while thinking this post over, trying to think of other circus GAD novels, and completely forgot Flowers for the Judge…maybe I need to reread that…

      Also, no rating because it’s not really a review. Perhaps that’s a technicality, but for the TNBs I’m focussing mainly on the travel aspect rather than looking at the book overall. Maybe there’s no real difference, but anything that’s not posted on a Wedneday I consder to have a typically slightly different intent. Dunno why…!

      And as there’s still one more Tuesday in May, this isn’t my final ‘travel’ post, either. Whoops!


  2. One of my favourite circus set mysteries is “The Headless Lady” by Clayton Rawson. As it is an American novel written in1940 it would be interesting to compare the two.

    Chris Wallace

    Liked by 1 person

    • I recently tracked down copies of the other three Rawson/Merlini titles, but Headless Lady continues to elude me. Certainly the aspect of showmanship must feature in some way in the Merlini books, and so may make an interesting comparison….hmmmm, I might just bump Death from a Top Hat up ny TBR in that case. Thanks for the nudge!


  3. Pingback: #93: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – America from the Outside: The Traveller’s Perspective in The Sharkskin Book (1941) by Harry Stephen Keeler | The Invisible Event

  4. Pingback: #107: Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt Update | The Invisible Event

  5. Pingback: #206: Death of Anton (1936) by Alan Melville | The Invisible Event

  6. Pingback: Case with Four Clowns (1939) by Leo Bruce – crossexaminingcrime

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.