Charles Fulton Oursler (1893-1952) wrote eight detective novels and a handful of short stories under the name Anthony Abbot. All featured New York Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt. About the Murder of the Circus Queen was the fourth Thatcher Colt mystery, appearing in 1932.
Abbot is generally regarded (in his early books at least) as belonging to the S.S. Van Dine school of detective fiction although Abbot is slightly less obsessed with the doings of high society types. Thatcher Colt is clearly, like Philo Vance, a well-educated upper-class man but he lacks Vance’s affectations and endless displays of erudition. He’s also a bit more of a tough guy.
Police Commissioners do not usually involve themselves in the details of criminal investigations but that doesn’t stop Colt. If a case engages his interest he not only becomes involved but leads the investigation himself.
The author plays the Dr Watson role, acting as first-person narrator in the guise of Colt’s private secretary.
As the title implies About the Murder of the Circus Queen is a circus mystery. The circus in question is performing in New York’s Madison Square Garden. This provides Abbot with the necessary circus background but in a slightly unusual setting and allows Abbot to set the action entirely in Manhattan (like Van Dine Abbot seems to have had little interest in the world beyond the confines of that island).
The circus has been having more than its share of bad luck with a string of worrying accidents, accidents that have already claimed the lives of several circus employees. Of course the circus is an inherently dangerous place and accidents are common but these accidents seem a little suspicious. And now several of the circus’s star performers have received death threats. Thatcher Colt is inclined to take the matter seriously and is not only present on opening night, he also has a large number of New York’s finest scattered through the crowds just in case something serious really does happen. This does not prevent murder from occurring, right in the middle of the performance, but at least the police are on hand immediately and the investigation can get underway before the trail goes cold.
The murder itself is both spectacular and ingenious, and apparently quite inexplicable. Adding to the difficulties is the nature of circus life - circus performers (and indeed everyone working in a circus) form what would later come to be described as a sub-culture. They have their own traditions and their own values and they’re deeply suspicious of outsiders. And being an enclosed little hot-house world naturally means that there are plenty of jealousies and intrigues. The difficulty here is not in finding someone with a motive but in sorting through an embarrassment of riches in the motive department.
Abbot demonstrates an ability to construct an intricate plot with an abundance of red herrings. I would not claim that his plotting is quite up to the standard of the early Ellery Queens but it’s not far behind. Fans of ingenious plotting will have nothing whatever to complain about in this novel.
Thatcher Colt is a fine series detective, an investigator combining the mental dexterity of a Ellery Queen with hints of the tough guy persona of the pulp detectives. That’s not to say that Colt is a two-fisted action hero (although he can handle himself in a brawl when he needs to). It’s more a psychological toughness that he has. He has a square-jawed no-nonsense approach that makes him a very different kettle of fish to a Philo Vance. Colt also has the kinds of intellectual accomplishments that Vance has but he doesn’t make a song and dance about it.
The circus background is fun (and I’m a sucker for circus stories) but this book has more than that, It has ju-ju and witch doctors! So it has just about every ingredient that I love in a mystery thriller type of story.
If you love the S.S. Van Dine/early Ellery Queen type of mysteries but you find Philo Vance and Ellery Queen too affected for your tastes then Anthony Abbot may well be just the writer you’re looking for. About the Murder of the Circus Queen is tremendous fun. Highly recommended. You should also check out his slightly earlier About the Murder of the Clergyman’s Mistress.