“She was Frigidaire cool, and I wanted her bad.” The Postman Always Rings Twice? Double Indemnity? No, Carnahan, a James M. Cain knockoff who knows the female of the species to be very dangerous.
Cain invented the novel that takes a profession—law, insurance—as deep background for a thriller. Here, Carnahan offers a deep understanding of life in a failing big-top circus. Bailey Quinn, 22, tossed out of college in his junior year, takes up “copping free”—or robbing stores by cutting through windows. He’s also into the big con, with plans to make a major theft, then return to college. And he’s a drug addict and drunk. He lands a summer job with a traveling circus that can’t always meet its payroll and is managed by an alcoholic owner who turns over management to the Freaks. The Freaks have a clear head for beating taxes by keeping the circus’s take in hard cash. Among them: the serpent girl, a busty and beautiful sexpot with no legs, one missing arm, and one short arm with a flipper, who is married to a mentally stunted giant. (Is this the ’30s classic flick Freaks? William Lindsay Greshman’s Nightmare Alley?) Bailey decides to rob the circus on the night before the weekly cash intake is shorted by the Freaks and banked. To find out which night that is, he romances the serpent girl. But he also falls for Sissy, a drug addict with wrecked veins but three years clean and sober, who takes him to an AA meeting that melts him to tears. “She had disappeared into the burning land of damage and risen again, whole and somehow fortified, like porcelain from the kiln. I was still somewhere deep in the smoldering wreckage. The only thing I could do was drag her back in; there was no potential upside to time spent with me.”
First-novelist Carnahan is a stylist who upgrades pulp to the Turkish-coffee richness of Cain, Hammett, and Chandler.