Fredric Brown, who died in 1972 at age 65, was an accomplished American mystery and science fiction author of more than 30 books and 300 short stories and vignettes.
His debut novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint, won the Edgar Award, and a number of his stories were adapted for the screen, including Martians, Go Home, Madman’s Holiday (filmed as Crack-Up), and The Screaming Mimi, which was the basis of a 1958 movie by Columbia Pictures and also an enormously successful Italian film titled The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.
Brown also wrote television plays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and his story Arena, which became one of the original episodes of Star Trek, was selected by the Science Fiction Writers of America for inclusion in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964, edited by Robert Silverberg.
Madball, reissued this month as a mass-market paperback by Black Gat Books, a division of Stark House Press, was originally published in 1953 by Dell Books and in condensed form, earlier that same year, under the title ‘The Pickled Punks’ in The Saint Detective Magazine.
It was the novel that began the pocket-size paperback revolution by Dell Publications — a project that revolutionized the publishing industry by offering, without a prior hardcover edition, original paperback novels for 25 cents.
Set entirely on a carnival lot, it’s a suspenseful and dryly amusing tale of theft, murder, and double-cross that’s told from the viewpoint of half-a-dozen or more of the colourful talkers, performers, and show folk of the travelling outfit Wiggins and Braddock Combined Shows.
It opens with the ‘lean, hard, handsome’ Mack Irby returning to the carnival park having been hospitalized for seven weeks following a car crash.
Mack, who suffered only a broken leg, was employed as a talker to promote the ‘unborn show’ called Mystery of Sex — a collection of real human foetuses in jars, including the foetus of ‘a two-headed calf.’
However, he has not come back to resume work, but to woo Maybelle Seeley, a model in one of the shows, and collect the $42,000 he and his colleague, a ‘tough’ crook named Charlie Fink, robbed from a bank two months earlier and hid at the carnival park.
Fortunately for Mack, the unlucky Charlie Fink, Maybelle’s lover, died in that car crash, allowing Mack the chance not just to pick up Charlie’s two-third split of the money, but ‘inherit Charlie’s girl, too.’
But just hours after Mack’s triumphant return, having enjoyed a night of prolonged passion with Maybelle, he is murdered with a tent stake by a vicious killer who has plans to disappear with the cache of stolen money.
With none of the shady carnie folk keen to tell the police anything, the murder investigation stalls and the carnival show goes on unimpeded…until the murderer strikes again, bumping off all those who stand in the way of ‘that beautiful hunk of moolah’ and a clean getaway.
The presence of Raymond Leroy Morris, the eloquent, intellectual fortune-teller known to all as Dr. Magus, drives the story.
Expelled from university four months shy of completing his Ph.D. in Philosophy, the oft-inebriated but always incisive Doc, sometimes too clever for his own good, swiftly starts to piece together the mystery without needing to read minds or rely on his ‘madball’ (carney slang for crystal ball).
According to The Fresno Bee, the author travelled with a carnival to get material for this story. You can tell as much from the carney slang, the interesting titbits of carnival lore, and the vivid descriptions of shooting galleries, fortune wheels, merry-go-rounds, and the strident selling spiel of barkers over p.a. systems.
It’s not surprising that authors like Aryn Rand and Robert Bloch spoke highly of Brown, an ingenious writer with an abundance of bright story ideas. Purportedly, Mickey Spillane named him as his all-time favourite author and Anthony Boucher of The New York Times hailed him as a successor to the late Cornell Woolrich.
Madball is a fun, exciting, and extremely enjoyable screwball story that is full of dark and devious humour and numerous surprising twists. A wise investment in time and money, it’s guaranteed to be a novel you will read multiple times.
(Black Gat Books, paperback, £9.99)
My review of Madball by Fredric Brown was published in the Lancashire Post on June 26, 2019, and syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK. Archived online access to these reviews as they originally appeared, featuring my byline, can be found at these weblinks:
Blackpool Gazette; Burnley Express; Chorley Guardian; The Clitheroe Advertiser and Times; Fleetwood Weekly News; Garstang Courier; Lancashire Post; Lancaster Guardian; Leigh Observer; Leyland Guardian; Longridge & Ribble Valley News and Advertiser; Lytham St. Annes Express; Pendle Today (Nelson Leader; Colne Times; Barnoldswick and Early Times); The St. Helens Reporter; The Visitor (Morcambe); Wigan Today (Wigan Post; Wigan Observer).