The Dead Ringer – Fredric Brown (1948)

The Dead RingerAs fans of Fredric Brown know all too well, there are two professions with which the author was both familiar with and revelled in setting stories using them as a backdrops. The first recurring theme of his was journalism, and by that I mean small time newspaper presses and all the printing technology and jargon that goes along with it. But the other landscape you’re likely to encounter in a Brown story is the old time traveling carnival. And it’s just in such a ‘carney’ that the mystery of The Dead Ringer begins.

When the body of a naked young boy is found in the muddy grounds of the J.C. Hobart traveling carnival show, the ball toss showrunners Ed Hunter and his uncle Ambrose (simply called “Am”) are slowly drawn into the mystery of the identity of the victim. But the body has other oddities besides it being a total stranger to the nearest townsfolk and the carney worker themselves. The next two victims are even stranger, but there is one connecting thread among all the victims besides the obvious fact that they were all murdered by the same assailant.

Ed’s also got a lot of other things on his mind now that he’s taken a shine to one of the new “posing show” girls. But she’s as great a mystery as the string of murders taking place. Usually one step ahead of the detective working on the case, Ed and Am piece together the mystery, and find out a little more about their fellow carnival family and even a bit more about themselves.

I really love the pulp feel to these stories written back in the forties. While certainly sanitized for readers, you can read enough between the lines to get to the real nitty-gritty of what was happening behind the tarps on the show wagons. What isn’t sanitized and was considered normal for the times was the abundant drinking, smoking and womanizing (not necessarily in that order). You also come to grips what era we are dealing with when you have a character named “Jigaboo” who is a young black boy, although thankfully aside from the name the character is dealt with in a otherwise respectful manner.

The carney experience, while a backdrop, is not as pervasive as other carnival stories, but there is enough of it to savor if that is what you’re looking for. As for the mystery itself, while not a prolific reader of the genre, I can say it sure had me guessing almost right to the end. And there is always an added twist just for good measure.

I also found out right after I read the novel that this was not Brown’s first “Ed and Am” novel, they being featured in the novel The Fabulous Clipjoint written just a year earlier (and also compiled edition, Hunter and Hunted featuring both novels). Had I known, I would have read that first as I do have it on my shelves as I have most of Brown’s bibliography. At least, I know I will enjoy that one just as much, as if I ever doubted I would not like a Fredric Brown story.

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