Death of Anton by Alan Melville

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Having really loved Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain, it didn’t take much to convince me that I wanted to try another of his detective novels, also published in the British Library Crime Classics series with a very splendid cover.

The cover is a clue to the setting of the novel: it takes place in and around a travelling circus. The opening paragraph sets the scene:

The circus came to town.
It arrived, not with any of the majesty and excitement which herald the arrival of a small circus in a small town, but with all the modern efficiency for which Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie was famous. There was no triumphal procession through the streets of the town to delight the youngsters, give a brief preview of the circus’s delights, and act as a powerful piece of publicity; instead, the two special trains which pulled Carey’s Circus around Britain during the summer months rolled more or less smoothly into the station between eleven and twelve o’clock on that hot July night.

The circus characters tread a line between stereotype and the reverse. Joseph Carey is the friendly demagogue, ruling the circus with an iron fist, but also a kind smile and benevolent air. There is a pair of trapeze artists, married, who live a tempestuous life outside the ring. There is a clown who spends his life outside the circus in a sombre suit, and (more sombrely) there are those who mostly stand and point, building up the crowd, who are no longer young or beautiful enough to be star attractions.

And then there is Anton, the loinclothed man on the posters who gets Bengal tigers to jump through hoops of fire, and the like. Melville paints fun portraits of the tigers, as closely as any of the human characters. Some grew up in this environment, and are unthinkingly obedient; Peter is the most stubborn tiger, threatening to rebel at any moment.

It will come as no surprise, given the title, that… Anton dies.

Coincidentally, Detective Inspector Minto of Scotland Yard is in town, and leaps into action. Though the characters don’t cross over, there are a lot of tonal similarities with Quick Curtain – which I, for one, was overjoyed by. Melville brings the same light touch, the witty repartee, and the sarcastic outlook in his detective hero. Though Minto doesn’t have anybody to spar off in the way that the father and son team worked in Quick Curtain, there are still plenty of opportunities for his dryness to work its wonders.

So, the writing is delicious. The plot? It’s always of more importance in a detective novel than elsewhere, and here… well, it’s not very clever. There are a few convoluted moments, but nothing that could be considered a twist. Indeed, I thought I was being led to a rather ingenious explanation, but the solution turned out to be significantly more mundane than I’d thought. As always (I find) the spectre of Agatha Christie makes the plots of other writers appear lacklustre.

But it really doesn’t matter. Melville has what Christie, even at her finest, didn’t quite have – a really deft light, comic touch and an insouciance that makes reading his novels a complete delight.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and has never been to the circus.

Alan Melville, Death of Anton (London, British Library, 2015), 978-0712357883, paperback, 288pp.

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