Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie has just arrived in town, complete with clowns, trapeze artists, an intelligent sea lion, and seven Bengal tigers. Detective-Inspector Minto has also just arrived in town for his sister’s wedding, and he becomes friendly with several members of the circus during his stay. After one performance, he’s invited to a party that ends in tragedy: Anton, the man who does the tiger act, has been found apparently mauled to death. Luckily, Minto is on the case, and he soon realizes that Anton was murdered. But who did it — the circus owner, who seems to be hiding something? The jealous trapeze artist, whose wife was allegedly having an affair with Anton? The clown whose costume was ripped as though by a tiger’s claws? Minto’s investigation eventually encompasses not just the murder but a larger mystery surrounding the circus as a whole.
This is a fairly typical Golden Age mystery, albeit with an interesting setting and a fun, breezy writing style. The shady goings-on at the circus aren’t hard to uncover, and while I didn’t actually guess the murderer, there are no big surprises in the denouement of the mystery. But this is a clever book with a lot of interesting little details. My favorite scene is when one character is almost killed because a trapeze has been shortened by just a few inches — what a creative way to murder someone! My big quibble with the book is that the detective’s brother is a Catholic priest to whom someone confesses the crime, and he reveals way too much about that conversation to the detective! I think the author didn’t understand how confession works…but as a Catholic myself, I’m probably more sensitive to that than many other readers. Overall, I like Melville’s writing — I also enjoyed Quick Curtain — and I look forward to reading the rest of his novels.