Public freaks and private dicks 

Get your SAT vocabulary flash cards ready, ’cause Darryl Wimberley has a mystery for you to solve — one involving a “caravanserai” and a “pan of loam.” If you decode what he’s actually describing in the first few pages (spoiler: an elephant trampling a man who just porked a 600-pound woman in its watering tank), following this tale of double-cross and murder at a pre-Depression freakshow shouldn’t pose much of a problem. Throughout the rest of the novel, Wimberley’s narration occasionally annoys, drifting between purple prose and pulp-novel terse, clumsily dropping the occasional Sam Spade slang, but the story itself is passable, and sometimes even engaging.

Oliver Bladehorn, Cincinnati’s top mob boss, bullies deadbeat gambler and dad Jack Romaine into recovering some embezzled cash and bonds, and he takes the case despite a moral dilemma. Jack’s been hired to kidnap one of Bladehorn’s former employees and return her to the gangster for interrogation. He doesn’t feel particularly good about what’s obviously going to happen to this woman, but that stack of unpaid debts weighs heavier than his heart. After a moderately kick-ass run-in with the homicidal lunatic also out for the bootlegger’s money, Jack follows the trail to a small Florida town populated almost entirely by what used to be called “sideshow freaks” but are often more classily referred to here as “carneys” — bearded, scaly, three-breasted, elephantine-nutsack-havin’ carneys. They, of course, have much to teach us “rubes” about life and love. They also serve as handy distractions from an underfed mystery plot, but that’s probably coincidental.

The quandary at the heart of the book is weak and uninteresting, but Wimberley writes like he knows this. Jack spends more page time working undercover as a shit-shoveling brodie than hunting for clues and interviewing suspects, but the actual whodunit is relegated to his off time with good reason: Kaleidoscope’s setting, a town full of believe-it-or-nots taking a leave of absence from the road show, and several of the odd ducks themselves are often interesting enough to keep you turning pages.

The gratuitous references to the day’s pop culture — the speakeasies, the flappers, Herbert Hoover dancing the Charleston with 23 Skidoo, etc. — often grate, but Wimberley’s intelligent handling of the era’s economics, the speculative stock trading and its effect on underworld food-chain fluctuation, justify the book’s Depression-era setting, though this topic has been explored more successfully in other works. Through it all, Romaine remains a charming diet-noir character — clever, seedy, and direct — and his erotic encounters with a triple-breasted fortune teller and a blue-skinned hottie are like nothing you’ll read this year outside of Total Recall/Smurfs slash fiction.

The story falters, however, when Wimberley gives into the 21st-century desire to treat the carneys as noble sufferers. The book’s set in 1929, after all, when times were so tough even a conjoined twin act might be envied if they brought home a steady paycheck. Modern readers might feel uncomfortable with the more amoral gawking aspects of, say, 1932’s Freaks, but the hypocrisy of pretending to dignify a man suffering elephantitis while vividly describing the way he hauls his ball sack in a wheelbarrow is equally squirm-worthy. •


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