If you’ve never read a classic-era novel of crime and detection, what are you waiting for? There’s that Agatha Christine lady who wrote those David Suchet books, and the British Library has been putting out affordable classics for a little while now — go ahead and dig in. Sure, some of them are better than others, but if you want a good introduction to this type of thing then Alan Melville’s circus-set Death of Anton might just be the perfect place to start: it’s very witty, written with the lightest of touches, and wastes no time in maundering on in a wannabe hard-boiled fashion while dealing with the seeming imprecations of a circus where death keeps raising its head…
Which is not to say that hardier travellers on these routes won’t also find much to enjoy, but there’s a notable absence of Ellery Queen’s sudden reversals, or of John Dickson Carr’s precarious over-plotting. Melville seems intent on putting the ‘fun’ into fundamentals, and so covers the basics of the detective story in a very (ahem) arresting way. His Scotland Yard detective Mr. Minto — we never learn his first name — is gentlemanly and unfussy and, upon finding himself at a circus where the tiger-taming Anton is mysteriously killed, goes about his detection in a gentlemanly and unfussy way: people are generally questioned politely, he strikes his knee and utters an “Oh, hell” at setbacks, and must contend with his sister’s impending marriage to a dull young man in the meantime.
What I especially appreciated is how Melville manages to be flippant around, but never about, the death that forms the basis of this story. We neither linger on nor shy away from the spectacle of a body mauled by tigers, and those felines are described during the commission of their turn in the rings of the circus in a way that makes the evident threat they pose very real. This balancing of the light and dark is a far harder job than Melville makes it appear, and for a book to be both so charming and so serious at the same time is immensely impressive. Most of this is down to the deployment of Melville’s characters, focussing on a small section of those involved in the circus while hinting at the larger issues, frustrations, and jostling for position that goes on behind the scenes, with equal amounts bathos and pathos stirred expertly into the mix.
There’s a fabulous reflection on the life of being a performer in the circus early on from one of the clowns — sometimes you don’t know what kind of town you’re in, and so what sort of slapstick will go down well — that fills in a huge amount of the 1936 setting, enriched by one of Mr. Minto’s pieces of subterfuge later on that brings us into contact with a veteran of the First World War with much to gripe about. I also found it especially interesting how all the peremptory characters here are the women: while Mr. Minto and his priest brother find themselves gently at loggerheads over a key aspect of the case, it is their sister Claire who seems the most decisive about what she expects and wants from both her brothers and her fiancé. Equally, it is Loretta, the female half of the flying trapeze act, who evinces the strongest emotion when confronted with allegations of infidelity and stirs the somewhat passive Lorimer into a course of action that accidentally kicks off another facet of the plot.
The mystery itself thankfully plays a larger part in the narrative here than can be said the first touchstone people will inevitably reach for, namely Leo Bruce’s Case with Four Clowns (1939). It’s all a bit Death in Paradise with the parade of suspects, each in turn revealed to have motive, and the sudden forcing of a resolution come the end, but as comfortable reads go you can do far worse. There’s not a huge amount in the way of clues to join together, and it’s a tiny bit frustrating that the few which could be interesting are the sort of thing that are very difficult to communicate in the written medium, and it lacks somewhat for actual evidence, but for an introduction it’s a good place to start, and will provide an enjoyable time for all.
And, I’ll be honest, I’m intrigued by the notion of a “respectable train back to town” — does this mean that some trains were more respectable than others? My mind is seething with the possibilities…
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Anyhow, the introduction of all of these characters, life in a traveling circus and Minto’s investigation is told with zest and humor, which is filled with funny exchanges and winking at the detective story … It makes for a fun, fast and mostly light-hearted story in the spirit of the comedy-of-manners and tongue-in-cheek style of mysteries…
Sarah Hapgood: It’s safe to say this isn’t your usual 1930s whodunnit. There are no stately homes, no idiosyncratic sleuths unravelling a complex puzzle of a plot, culminating in a dramatic showdown, with The One You Least Suspect as the culprit. I didn’t guess who the culprit was here, because frankly I was too busy enjoying all the rest of it!
It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the cover of this book shown at the top of this review because, as we know, the British Library Crime Classics have established a very distinct visual identity, one that’s been so successful, in fact, that other publishers are scrambling to ape it. Many of the images used in this BL series are taken from old tourism and railway posters, but this is one of an increasing number of excellent original covers created by Chris Andrews specifically for theis series. It fits so perfectly with the colouring and styling of the ‘pre-existing’ covers that the fact of it being contemporary to the new version could easily pass you by — surely a sign of a great job extremely well done.