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.
The 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?