- By Nicholas Brady
- First published: UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1933; published in the US as The Carnival Murder.
- Availability: Black Heath Crime
This fair is foul, it seems. The Bank Holiday Fair in Mudford is a depressing, tawdry place, despite the promises of Tiger-Faced Men, Syrian beauties, limbless miracles, and other prodigies. Sandra the fat woman is stabbed to death – but the Rev. Ebenezer Buckle, the C. of E.’s answer to Father Brown, discovers that there are worse crimes than murder.
The Fair Murder has a reputation as one of the darkest detective stories of the Thirties. Do only the brave deserve The Fair? It casts light on the seamy side of fairs and freakshows – but its reputation is exaggerated. It involves (rather obviously) the notion that circus freaks were mutilated children, victims of unscrupulous surgeons. This seems to be sensationalist and false; of the dozen or so articles I read this morning, the only reference is in a 1908 Scientific American article: “In parts of southern Europe there was formerly plied a nefarious trade in maiming and mutilating young children for the purpose of producing distressing deformities to excite pity and thus induce alms.” This appears to be organised begging, rather than freakshows. (A similar trade is still plied in developing countries today.) While the exhibition of physical deformities might repel modern sensibilities, it seems that many freaks were not exploited; they were popular stars, and were well-paid – often better than acrobats, for instance – and able to demand and get raises from their managers. For others, the circus was also a place where their abnormalities could be both accepted and profitable. (For more information, see here , here, and here.)
As a detective story, The Fair Murder offers a poor puzzle. “Unless you solve the mystery of the bucket, the beer bottle and the boiled beef,” Buckle tells the police, “you’ll never find out who killed the fat lady.” The bucket clue is fair; certainly, Buckle’s remark in Ch. VIII, properly interpreted, indicates a certain character – BUT we should have been shown the rim mark. A map would make the point of the beer bottle much clearer. But these clues become meaningless, because they lack context.
For nearly two hours the parson walked round the ground, peering into booths and caravans, studying the names on the sideshows, pacing distances to gain rough measurements, examining the railings at the rear of Sandra’s tent, and even walking round her caravan with an empty beer bottle in his hand! Then he clambered up the tiers of fabulous animals on the merry-go-round until he gained the mechanic’s seat at the top of the gaudy pile. There he settled down to take a bird’s eye view of the scene, returning to the ground to examine once more the grass around Sandra’s caravan. From thence he commenced yet another tour of the surrounding vans. In one of them he found – and evinced much interest in the discovery – a pair of goloshes, still damp, and with blades of grass adhering to them. Carefully he examined the inside of the heels before placing them in his pocket.Ch. XIV
In the final chapter, Buckle reveals that he discovered several important clues in those two hours. None of them are shared with the reader. We are not told that Buckle found fresh marks on the railings, where those marks start, or even the height of the railings. We are not told in whose caravan the goloshes were found, or the marks inside them. A certain character dyes their hair; the long description of that person does not even mention their hair, nor (another clue) the shininess of their hands. Nor that Buckle found a bottle of dye in their van. The Fair Murder does not play fair; it should be called The Un-Fair Murder.