book review

For readers who like it rough: Madball (1953)

“…see everything, boys, I mean everything, the sex mystery exposed, red hot, sex in the raw, everything explained, plain down to earth unadorned, right before your very eyes, now it can be told, what papa did to mama, one dime only one dime, come and see for yourselves, the mystery of sex, only for a dime, continuous…”

Frederick Brown’s delirious Madball is an inverted murder mystery wrapped in booze-soaked sleaze. The title is carny slang for the crystal ball used by fortune tellers. And fate (along with fear and desire) is the main subject here. Fate doesn’t care about perfect endings, it’s as likely to drop a grand piano on your head as it is to surround your death bed with loved ones.

Our story begins eight weeks after a successful bank robbery. The two robbers/carnies planted the cash somewhere under the big tops and went out for celebratory drinks — alcohol plays a huge part in Madball, sort of like the oil for the plot’s gears. Unfortunately, f̶a̶t̶e̶ a drunk driver crashed into them, killing the driver and sending his partner to the hospital for the aforementioned eight weeks.

The partner, Mack Irby returns to the carnival to say hello to the knife throwers and sword swallowers, the talkers and barkers and freaks…also to get his full share of the money. Instead, he gets a spike through his head. The gal he had shacked up with for the night, Maybelle, is similar to the other carnies–she wants nothing to do with the police. In order to provide an alibi, she offers a night in bed with the kindly fortune teller, Dr. Magus. That’s right, after waking up to her bloody client lying in the tent entrance, Maybelle hops into bed with another carny. This world runs on a system of flesh for money; murder is just another cause for transaction. The scene where the bad doctor inspects every crevice of Maybelle’s body for hidden money is only about a 4 on this book’s 1-10 scale of audacity.

Our killer has his own problems, like being seen walking away from the crime scene with a bloody spike in his hand. Murder has a way of turning people dumber and dumber. Now another murder has to happen which leads to more murder as the barbed-wire plot coils forward and desperate people do some desperate, bloody things.

Brown knows the carnival world. These people are bound together against society, but when the lights go down and the whiskey is poured, forty-two grand is easily worth a few friendly throats. All the characters want booze, sex, and money except for Sammy, a mentally handicapped teenager working for the sexually abusive owner of the milk-bottle stand — be politically incorrect or GTFO. Sammy only wants two things: unlimited cotton candy and the secret of women. When he discovers the latter (via the killer’s pornography collection???) everything burns and no one gets out unscathed. The lucky ones are killed instantly.

Madball is about as wild a noir as you’re likely to read. Brown has the setting down perfectly and his characters are about as sharply drawn as you could hope. It may be strange to end the year (probably) on a non-detective novel, but when I read the synopsis, I knew this would be a treat.

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