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.”
18 thoughts on “#90: The Tuesday Night Bloggers – Running Around with the Circus in Leo Bruce’s Case with Four Clowns (1939)”
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?
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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!
Well the circus element is not a big one in FFTJ so quite easy to overlook. I look forward to views on DOA, as Melville is a favourite author of mine.
No stars? You’ll have Santosh chasing you if you don’t keep up your standards (he rightly tells me off a lot!)
No stars as it’s not a review, more a…reflection on the travel aspect of the situation in the plot.
If anyone wants a rating, it’s a three-star book – but the full reasons for that would require a review…!
Semantics, felt a lot like a review to me 🙂
Haha, well next time I shall try harder… 🙂
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Well, OK then … 😉
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.
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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!
There is a reference to The Headless Lady in The Moai Island Puzzle and it is mentioned as being out of print !
I had totally forgotten that!
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Hey JJ, just wondering if you’ve read Bruce’s ‘Neck and Neck’ – and if you would recommend it…?
I have not, I’m still trying to track down a copy. But Ropes & Rings was extremely poor, so I wonder if that signals the start of a decline…
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