“But that doesn’t matter if you’re not going to live till morning.”

Brown cuts to the chase in Madball, this is a taut emotional thriller that never lets up. The bodies fall like nine pins, not that there’s a plan, it’s just the darker side of human nature ignited by greed, lust, sexual jealousy, and rage and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Madball shows just how cutting edge fifties American pulp fiction was, there’s a candour and frankness about attitudes to money and sex that mainstream fiction couldn’t dream of bringing to readers. Its electric.

On the surface this is a tale of carnival people and Brown does play up the strangeness of this edgy world to great effect, after all that’s what got the crowds in, but it’s not the main point. This isn’t a story of outsiders and oddballs, these are ordinary people, mostly grifters, but people who had to earn every buck in their pockets the hard way. With each twist and turn of the plot we see the brutal but also the weak grab for the main chance. The story reflects on the desire to escape the life as much as the desire to do evil but the result is the same – people die. Much of what happens isn’t even connected to that cursed $42,000 as the carnies face their own demons. It’s proper noir, proper cynical, a few hours of cathartic fun and watch out for the kidney blow at the end that will floor you. Brown doesn’t care much for tradition, he has his own way of telling a story, and it’s gripping.

There’s only a few weeks to run when Mack Irby, not Kirby, limps back into the Carnival. He’s just out of hospital but he isn’t back for his old job, he stashed $42,000 (that’s $400,000 in today’s money) just before the accident. He was lucky he only broke his leg because two people, including his partner, died in that car crash. The money comes from a bank heist, it looks like Mack got away with it but the second he sets his foot back on the carnie turf a chain reaction is sparked. Even, Madball, Doc Magus’ crystal ball can’t foretell the mayhem that will follow.

Back to the bank robbery, a good start for a pulp novel, only the robbery has already happened, roughly seven weeks ago. Even the crash that killed one of the robbers the night after is history. At least it might be if Mack and Charlie hadn’t stashed the money at the carnie. That’s what brought Mack back. That and an ache for Maybelle, that has been festering in the hospital. Seven weeks ago she was off limits, she was Charlie Flack’s girl but now he’s dead – things are different, got to move on. With Charlie gone, Mack gets to keep all the loot, that’s Charlie’s two-thirds share for planning the job too. The broken leg ain’t so bad all in all. The crash was just luck, a patrol car saw it, Charlie was driving, it was the other guys fault. Mack even has $2,000 in insurance money. Apart from the cane everything looks good.

At the carnival the first person Mack runs into is the new grinder for the Mystery of Sex, Barney King, he’s not bad:

“I mean everything, right before your very eyes, the naked truth, all on the inside and all for one thin dime, one dime ten cents the whole show, the mystery of sex, doctors and nurses admitted free, scientific and you see it all for one dime, now going on…”

Mack doesn’t want his job back, he hated working for Burt anyway. Next up is Doc Magus, he reads Mack and let’s him know Maybelle is still free. Mack gets a sleeping top (tent) for the night. Maybelle and Mack have their own private show. The killer is waiting outside, he wants the insurance money, when Mack pops his head out of the top a tent post crushes his skull. The killer runs into a witness, she didn’t see the crime but she’ll remember him to the police in the morning. He bribes her but can’t help thinking one witness is one too many. Maybelle has a bit history with the police so she gets Doc to alibi her. Doc knows Mack was hiding something and he starts to put things together, connecting Mack to the robbery, so where’s the money? The police have no clue.

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) wrote sci-fi, fantasy, comedy and mystery and he liked to blur the boundaries between genres in his novels and short stories. His story Arena was adapted as for a TV episode of Star Trek and his thriller The Fabulous Clipjoint won the Edgar for outstanding first mystery novel. What Madball demonstrates is his bleak cynical vision of human nature and his blackly comic soul. The story plumbs the depths and just when you think it’s over Brown breaks your heart all over again. The ending is pure poetry and deeply sad but hey that’s the real world for you. A lesser writer would have softened the edges. Madball strays only slightly into the realm of the mystical, and the explanation is just as likely intuition as second sight, but the novel does have a slightly off kilter feel to it. It’s a spectacularly memorable cast and the plotting is meticulous. Brown understands people, what moves them, how ordinary people might be persuaded to crime, and how the innocents get caught up in it all. Mostly the characters here don’t live long enough for redemption. Cool, pacy, noir to the core.

Paul Burke 4/4

Madball by Fredric Brown
Stark House Press 9781944520748 pbk Jun 2019