Recently I read a story as part of Thrilling Tales, Seattle Public Library’s storytime for grownups, that was a bit out there even for me: “Spurs,” by the obscure pulp writer Tod Robbins. (You can listen to it here – Fair warning: I had a cold, and I really chewed the scenery on this one). Published in 1923, this was the inspiration for Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic film Freaks, and it got me thinking about other suspense and mystery writing set amidst the squalid glitter of circuses and sideshows, and so it true librarian fashion, I made a little list.
It starts off with William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 noir masterpiece, Nightmare Alley. The story of a callous huckster’s rise through the world of flim-flam and fakery kicks off with one of the most unforgettable conversations in literature in which a seasoned sideshow barker explains to our hero how to convert a desperate alcoholic into a circus geek who will bite off the heads of chickens for the amusement of the crowds, and for a supply of the liquor they so desperately crave. It seems Gresham – an alcoholic himself – had had this actual conversation some years before with a real circus professional and couldn’t get it out of his mind, and so wrote the book to exorcise this demon. The story seems likely, as the scene is truly unforgettable. It also seems to have popularized the term “geek” for the first time (as in Geek Love), although this was long before it was the bookend term to “nerd.”
Recently a reader had told me about enjoying Darryl Wimberley’s Kaleidoscope, an historical crime novel set in 1929 in which a down-on-his-luck gambler’s search for a woman’s missing millions leads him to infiltrate the bizarre world of a Tampa freakshow. This in turn reminded me of Matthew Carnahan’s Serpent Girl and Joe Lansdale’s Freezer Burn, two contemporary sideshow noir thrillers both steeped in the lurid, freaky, kinky and compulsively interesting world of three-breasted women, foul mouthed midgets, snake people and flippered sex queens. Hard to swallow, but even harder to look away.
Not all mysteries set under the big top are quite so wierd, but with its vivid sense of an alternative reality, it isn’t too surprising that many established crime writers from Ed McBain to Margaret Maron, Kerry Greenwood to M.J. Trow have all run away to join the circus in at least one of their titles. If you too harken to the calliope song of the sawdust, check out the Blood & Circuses list in our catalog, and don’t forget: the library is closed next week, but the circus will be open.