Carnival of Corpses

"It doesn't matter whether this world is crazy or not. It doesn’t matter if this absurdity is real. It doesn't matter how messed up this place may be… I want to survive!"
- Ganta Igarashi (Deadman Wonderland).
Fredric Brown's The Dead Ringer (1948) is the second chapter in the casebook of the nephew-and-uncle detective team of Ed and Ambrose Hunter, which followed in the wake of the Edgar Award winning novel The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947). I have, unfortunately, not read that particular book, but I know it has an 18-year-old Ed Hunter roaming the mean streets of Chicago for the man who mugged and killed his father. It was very well received at the time and Bill Pronzini labeled it as "unquestionable more than just another hard-boiled detective tale," but that’s a book for another day and the only reason I bring it up is to provide myself with a springboard into this review.

When his father was slugged and rolled into a grubby alley, Ed also brings his father's only other living relative back into the picture, a carnival barker and one-time private investigator named Ambrose "Am" Hunter, eventually becoming business partners when they set themselves up as licensed investigators, but at the opening of The Dead Ringer they run a ball game stand together – as part of a traveling carnival. The carnival life appears to agree with Ed Hunter, even though Brown's depiction of backstage gambling and drinking blew the stardust of the place, but hey, when a gorgeous woman from the posing show is making eyes at the now 19-year-old man romanticism has pretty much become a moot thing. Well, the fun has to stop at some point – even at the carnival! 

A body of a naked midget becomes, briefly, the unwanted star attraction of the fair, but it's not their own midget, who's in a terrible funk and eventually flees for his life, followed up by the drowning and resurrection of a terminally ill monkey. This provides the story with two excellent and evocative scenes, in which the earth-caked face of an undead monkey stares with glassy eyes through a window at Ed and the exhumation of its grave in a dark forest at the dead of night. Excellent stuff! The last murder is that of a kid who tap-danced under the stage name "Jigaboo" and was found naked at the side of a road. Run over by a car. Yeah. Brown was not a mystery writer who attended classes at The Realist School of Detective Fiction.

It's admirable how Brown turned this patchwork of unusual incidents and bizarre murders into a logical, coherent sequence of events and it could've been a minor masterpiece if it had been written more as a detective story. There was only one real clue (and an obscure one at that) that could give you an inkling of the truth, if you're lucky enough to catch it, but, other wise, you're groping around in the dark until the final chapter – and that bothered me to no end with this book because the solution was both original and imaginative. If this had been better handled, it would've easily conquered a spot on my list of favorite detective stories, but, as things are as they are, I could only really recommend The Dead Ringer for it's "wonderful 'carnie' atmosphere" – as the late "Grobius Shortling" described it.

I have to bring one more thing up about this book and that's its reverse take-on the meddling of amateur detectives in murder cases. After the third murder, Ed and Am have an argument over whether or not they should've acted sooner as they may've prevented more murders from happening. Uncle Am gives a few arguments in favor of the letting the police handle the case themselves, while a slightly guilty Ed prefers to take matters into his own hand. I found this interesting because (additional) deaths are usually caused by the amateurs interference and not by them sitting on their hands (e.g. Ellery Queen's guilt-trip in Cat of Many Tails, 1949).

Oh, just one more thing! Fellow locked room aficionado Mousoukyoku, who blogs On the Threshold of Chaos, has reviewed two Herbert Resnicow novels, The Gold Solution (1983) and The Gold Deadline (1984), and our opinions align and I feel confident that I have made a convert! You can read all my scribbles on Resnicow by clicking here. He also posted a favorable review of Paul Halter's The Fourth Door (1987). You can read all my scribbles on Halter by clicking here


  1. Well, it's hard to go wrong with undead monkeys - although one wonders how one tells if the monkey staring at you through a darkened window is undead or not.

    Not sure this is quite my kind of mystery, but a fascinating review nonetheless.

    1. You can never go wrong with dead monkeys. That's why I keep up the stock in my basement.

      I think you might enjoy this book, if you don't expect clueing at the level of Carr and Christie and allow Ed and Am to lead you to the solution as you sit back – flipping through the pages.

  2. It's a very live gorilla staring through the window, not a monkey. Artistic license as usual.

    I read this several years ago and remembered liking it enough to read other Brown books. It certainly appealed to love of weirdness in mystery novels. But I'm not such a fan as everyone else is of ...JABBERWOCK. I think Brown does better when he's writing straight crime and suspense, usually with psychopathic central characters. THE LENIENT BEAST, KNOCK THREE ONE TWO and HERE COMES A CANDLE are Brown in top form.

    1. Well, at least it depicts a scene from the book in a non-spoilerish way, which wasn't always the case with illustrations from that period and don't tempt me to go into a Brown study, John! I have a few more of his novels, including Knock Three-One-Two and the often praised The Screaming Mimi. I'll do it! :)

  3. THE SCREAMING MIMI is great! How could I have forgotten that one? KNOCK THREE-ONE-TWO was adapted for the "Thriller" anthology series. Brown's short fiction is excellent too and as varied as you can imagine.

  4. I love Brown's books, both in the mystery and SF genres - great review TomCat. I would add some of his other standalone titles to those already mentioned here such as THE FAR CRY and HIS NAME WAS DEATH as amongst his best. My favourite though is probably THE SCREAMING MIMI (though avoid the movie adaptation starring Anita Ekberg and Gipsy Rose Lee as it's pretty much a travesty).