One of the greats of 20th-century genre writing, Frederick Brown was accomplished in all areas of popular fiction. Science Fiction, fantasy, detective, mystery, thrillers; the man wrote in every area. I’m sure there were a few romances and westerns mixed in as well. Someone should dig in and look. Many of these ghostwriters wrote whenever they could.
Someone once said that he picked up a magazine full of stories by different writers during the 1940s and realized every story was written by the same man, but under different pseudonyms. I can believe it. It’s not that Brown and Company were trying to show the world they could do it all, it’s because there were bills to pay. I’ve been there too.
One of Brown’s best subject areas were carnivals and sideshows. His first detective novel, The Fabulous Clip Joint, introduced the world to Uncle Ambrose, a former carnival mentalist, and his young nephew, who unite to solve a murder. Brown would use the pair in more novels. It’s not hard to understand why he wanted to utilize the carnival as a backdrop for a novel. The characters who populate carnivals, and still do, form a backdrop life in general. Carnies have their own dialect, to keep the paying customers out of the know. They are recruited from the most desperate parts of the population.
Madball introduces us to all the major characters in the first chapter. We also find out why the victim of the murder, which occurs in the second chapter, is killed. From there on, it’s a long trail to find out who the killer is and why they did it.
Mac Irby has arrived at the carnival hobbling around on a cane. He’s survived a car accident and collected a few thousand dollars in from the insurance company. Some of it he’s put in postal certificates, an old way to save money. However, we soon find out that he’s carrying a lot more on him. Forty-two thousand dollars, to be precise. It seems he and another carnival worker knocked over a bank in a town close to where the carnival traveled and was on their way back to divide up the cash. But Mac’s co-conspirator wasn’t that good of a driver and managed to wreck the car.
Mac’s not too disturbed about his partner’s death because now he doesn’t need to split the loot. All he needs to do is hide the cash and wait till the heat is over. By next season, he’ll be healed and ready to walk off with all that money. But in the meantime, he needs to see if his late partner’s former girlfriend, who works at the “model” show, is available. His spirits are high, but, of course, he’ll never get the chance to spend that money.
It’s the characters that make this book so memorable. The mentalist who can read people by observing their reactions, the model who knows the value of her sex appeal, the people who work at the carnival, and even the local cops who show up to investigate the murder that takes place inside the carnival. Even the murderer has a personality, although you’re kept guessing until the end whom that might be.
One thing you need to know, none of these characters are up-standing people. All of them earn their living by how much they can scam the local population. The people who show up to the “unborn” show are there to ogle the contents of formaldehyde bottles, but the barker makes his real cash selling them sleazy sex education books. Only the mentalist comes off as a decent person and even he has a questionable background. Many of them are alcoholics.
For instance, here’s an account:
Under blankets in the chill of early dawn, Dolly Quintana lay beside her husband, trembling not from cold but from fear. Fear of the very thought of what he would do to her if she ran away and he came after and found her.Not fear of death; she wouldn’t be afraid to die, at least not to die a clean death, but killing wasn’t what Leon had promised to do if she ever even tried to run away from him. It was acid. Acid thrown into her face to blind her and disfigure her so no other man would ever want her or touch her. She’d be blind and horrible looking and she wouldn’t even be able to earn her living and she’d have to live out her life in eternal darkness in some institution, only she’d kill herself first—but that would be worse, harder to do, than if Leon killed her, and there’d be the pain and horror of the acid too. And he’d find her somewhere, sometime, no matter how far she ran or where she hid. He’d keep hunting till he found her. He was crazy jealous, really crazy.
It’s peppered with carny-speak throughout the novel. It took me a while, for instance, to figure out what the term was for a porta-john. Likewise, when we’re told that Jesse, who runs a milk bottle game, keeps a retarded man as a “punk”, it’s left to the reader to figure out what that term means. Indeed, sometimes the past wasn’t such a good place.
By the way, “Madball” refers to the crystal ball that the carnival mentalist, Dr. Magnus, uses to read people’s fortunes.
Nobody really comes off good at the conclusion of this novel. I’m not trying to give away the ending, but you should know not to invest too much into these characters. This isn’t a Jim Thompson book where sometimes the criminals do get away with the loot. I’ll also say that I didn’t quite buy the hiding place for the money, but it doesn’t ruin the novel.
So, if you want a tightly plotted book that’s hard to put down, I recommend Madball. It’s a grim look at the way some people must survive but doesn’t make their life choices seem noble. No one comes off as a saint in this book and there are plenty of sinners in it.