In a just world, Fredric Brown (1906-1972) would be a household name, and his body of work would be available in perpetuity. During his career, Brown conquered the world of crime and science fiction with novels and stories of consistently high quality, yet he is largely unremembered today by the general public. Stark House’s Black Gat imprint is doing its part to keep Brown’s memory alive by reprinting his 1953 carny heist novel, “Madball” for 21st century paperback consumption.
As the novel opens, veteran carnival worker Mack Irby is very pleased with himself. He’s walking around the midway watching the marks throw balls at milk bottles to win a kewpie doll as a line forms to see the alligator boy in a darkened canvas tent. Mack is pleased because he just successfully robbed a bank and has stashed $42,000 of the take until the season ends and the heat dies down. He’s hoping his newfound luck will extend to getting laid by one of the hotties from the hoochie-cootchie tent.
Meanwhile, there is a murderer among the carnies (preferred weapon: tent stake) whose secret is being kept by a female entertainer with a lot to lose. The carnival’s fortune teller (a “Madball” is carny lingo for his crystal ball) suspects that there may be a connection between the murder and the recent bank robbery. He uses his inside knowledge of the traveling staff with his practiced skills of intuition to learn the truth before the police get to the bottom of the mysteries.
The carnival setting of “Madball” is such a joy to read as the author peppers the narrative with inside-industry stuff as well as tons of carny lingo - marks, grinds, talkers, tops, doniker, etc. It’s a fun world for 198 pages, and the colorful characters make for some great company. As a mystery novel, “Madball” is imperfect - too many characters, too many POV shifts - but the main attraction here is the rich setting and era. If you have an interest in the 1950s traveling carnival subculture, there’s a lot to enjoy in this reissue.
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