Circus Life, Under the Big Top World*

CircusesThere’s something about a circus that can capture the imagination. The trapeze and other acts, the glittering costumes, the illusions, it’s all got something magical about it for a lot of people. At the same time, ‘circus people’ have often been seen as ‘not quite like the rest of us.’ They’re itinerant, they tend to keep to themselves, and they don’t always fit in.  And behind the scenes, the circus life is one of hard work, no real roots, and sometimes grimy, even ugly, surroundings. And yet, on the surface, the circus can look so enticing that it’s little wonder plenty of young people have dreamed of being clowns, acrobats or high-wire walkers.

It’s also little wonder we see plenty of circuses popping up in crime fiction. If you grew up reading Enid Blyton, you probably remember that circuses are a part of those children’s mystery stories. But we also see them in adult crime fiction.

For example, in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York City Homicide Bureau police officer Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he encounters a young woman about to jump off a bridge. She allows him to persuade her to come with him rather than jump; he then takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Although her mother died when she was very young, she’s had a more or less happy life until recently. Her father has met Jeremiah Tompkins, who is, as he puts it, cursed with the ability to see the future. Since that time, Harlan Reid has become obsessed with knowing the future; and now, Tompkins has predicted his death. Reid’s been told he will die at midnight on a certain day, and his daughter can no longer stand to see what’s happened to him since then. Shawn tries to help the Reids as much as he can, including investigating Tompkins. After all, Reid is a rich man, and it’s quite likely that someone is trying to manipulate him for his money. If it’s not Tompkins, it may be someone else. The trail leads to an itinerant carnival – a ‘tent show,’ but by the time the police get there, the whole show has moved on.  The police track down the performers, and it’s interesting to see how the operation is portrayed in this story.

In Clayton Rawson’s The Headless Lady, a young woman calling herself Mildred Christine comes to Merlini the Magician’s magic shop. She wants to purchase a particular illusion: ‘The Headless Lady.’ Merlini is reluctant to sell it to her, since it’s his only demonstration model. But she insists, and is willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money. Merlini finally agrees on the condition that she answer a few questions. She says that if she decides to do so, she’ll come back later. Merlini and his friend Ross Harte investigate, and trace the woman to an itinerant circus. It turns out that she is a circus performer, Pauline Hannum, daughter of the circus’ late owner Major Hannum.  When it comes out that Hannum was murdered, and that the killer might not be done, Merlini and Harte get involved in a behind-the-scenes circus mystery.

Jo Nesbø’s The Bat has Oslo police inspector Harry Hole travel to Sydney, where he’s been seconded to observe the investigation into the murder of a Norwegian national, Inger Holter. In the process of looking into her murder, the police find that there’ve been other, similar murders. If they are all connected, then the police could be dealing with a very dangerous killer. Hole and his Australian hosts have to ‘join the dots’ to find out what links all the victims, and one lead takes them to a circus that’s been giving performances in several different parts of the region. One of the things that we see in this novel is the ‘fringe’ nature of a lot of circus performers. Many of them don’t mix in with ‘the rest of us.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher goes undercover at Farrell’s Circus and Wild Beast Show in Blood and Circuses. In one plot thread of that novel, a few of the side show performers who travel around with the circus are concerned about some of the goings-on there. There’ve been several ‘accidents,’ including a broken tightrope, a fire, and a horse that suddenly died. The performers want Phryne to find out why the circus seems to be cursed, and who would want it to be ruined. She goes undercover as a trick rider, without access to her money, her title or her usual friends. As she finds out what’s happening at the circus, readers get a look at what circus life is like for the various performers.

Private investigator Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver also investigates some nefarious circus goings-on in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is spending the winter on the grounds of Blackcraig Estate. They’re happy for a safe place to stay, and willing to do some shows for the current owners in exchange. And Dandy’s two sons are excited that they’ll get the chance to see the circus. Then, some frightening things begin to happen, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. So she asks Dandy to find out what’s behind it all. That’s when Anastacia ‘Ana,’ the bareback rider, falls from her mount and is killed. It’s set up to look like a tragic accident, but Dandy soon discovers that it isn’t accidental at all.

Elly Griffiths’ new series featuring magician Max Mephisto begins with The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and Max is on the circuit, touring with fortune-tellers, dancers, sword-swallowers and so on. He’s called in to help when the body of a woman is discovered cut up and deposited in the Left Luggage section of Brighton Station. To DI Edgar Stephans, it looks like a macabre re-enactment of an old magic trick, The Zig Zag Girl, so he asks Max to help find out who might be responsible. At first, Max is very reluctant to get involved. As he puts it,

‘I don’t like the police.’

But he agrees, and as he and Stephens investigate, readers find out about life on the performing circuit during the early 1950s.

As you can see, the circus can be an exciting place, but underneath the glitter and the show, there can be real danger. Which circus stories have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Faithfully.


Filed under Catriona McPherson, Clayton Rawson, Cornell Woolrich, Elly Griffiths, Jo Nesbø, Kerry Greenwood

30 responses to “Circus Life, Under the Big Top World*

  1. Years ago I read a novel about a high wire act that was rigged so one of the tight rope walkers fell to her death. The titles escapes me. It was so long ago, but I do recall parts of the story.

  2. How fascinating, Margot. I did not know there were so many mystery novels set in a circus. Several of these sound very attractive.

  3. I so enjoyed the Enid Blyton books talking about circuses that I was almost persuaded to run away and join the circus at some point. Although I’m sure I’d have been spectacularly untalented for any of the acts… I had no idea that Phryne Fisher goes undercover as a trick rider at a circus – is there no end to that woman’s talents and spunk?

    • No, Marina Sofia, there isn’t. She’s an amazing character, isn’t she? And as for joining the circus, I’m completely unqualified, myself. Still, it’s fun to contemplate when you’re young, isn’t it?

  4. I loved the Enid Blyton Barney books! Miranda the monkey was so talented! I wanted a pet monkey for years after reading those, but my annoying parents wouldn’t get me one… 😉

    The other circus tale that always sticks in my mind is the Holmes story, The Veiled Lodger, where there’s no detection as such – just the story of a woman torn (pun intended) between the lion-tamer and the strongman…

    • I’m glad you mentioned The Veiled Lodger, FictionFan. As you remind us, it’s a great circus-themed story. And you know, who wouldn’t want to have a trained monkey? Blyton made it all sound so…fun. Parents! Hmphhh! 😉

  5. Col

    I’ve only read The Bat from the examples and didn’t really recall that aspect – shows how much attention I must have been paying! I can’t recall it in any of my other reading either….which probably counts for nothing! 🙂

    • I always think it’s fascinating what we do and don’t pay attention to when we read, Col. And I’d bet that no two people pay attention to the details of a book in exactly the same way.

  6. Keishon

    The circus has always appealed to me as a backdrop in a novel. I can’t recall reading anything with it in a crime novel. Although I do have a book in my tbr pile that features one I think. Blanking on the title. I’ll let you know which one if I find it. I think maybe the character featured plays a clown (even more creepy). Interesting post as usual and thanks, Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Keishon. I’m intrigued by your TBR book, too. Hmm..I know Peter Høeg wrote a book called The Quiet Girl that features a circus clown. I wonder if that might be it? Either way, I’ll be interested in hearing about it when you get to it.

      • Keishon

        It wasn’t The Quiet Girl but I do have that one. Did you enjoy The Quiet Girl? Some readers have told me that he’s a one-off writer for them.

        • I’ll admit, Keishon, it didn’t really transport me. He’s a skilled writer – the narrative and so on are fine. But no, it didn’t draw me in particularly. But your mileage may vary, so don’t go by my word.

  7. Margot, I intend to read Jo Nesbo next year. Long overdue, no doubt. Frankly, the only circus stories I remember, vaguely, of course, are the ones in Enid Blyton stories!

    • If you do read Nesbø, Prashant, I hope you’ll enjoy his work. I’ll be interested in what you think of it. And I think Blyton’s stories really had a profound influence on a lot of readers…

  8. I loved the Enid Blyton stories as a child and longed to be part of circus life although I’m not sure the realities would have worked out so well for me. The Zig-Zag Girl was the perfect example of a mystery set against the back-drop of the circus.

    • I think the reality is often quite a lot different to dreams like being in a circus, Cleo. But those dreams really are fun, aren’t they? And you’re right about The Zig Zag Girl.

  9. I love books set in circuses, the more sinister the better. I’m sure it started with those children’s books by Enid Blyton, and Noel Streatfeild too. And among adult books, Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground had a wonderful setting in a European travelling circus.

    • Thanks, Moira, for reminding me of Mary Stewart’s work. I’ve enjoyed some of her suspense novels quite a lot, ‘though I admit I’ve not read Airs Above the Ground. It sounds like a great example of what I had in mind with this post, though, so thanks. And I’m sure you’re not the only one who was influenced by Blyton and Streatfield…

  10. One of my favorites of this genre is William Lindsay Gresham’s roman noir Nightmare Alley, in which the setting is more a sideshow than circus. It was later adapted into a fine movie starring Tyron Power.

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