Cirque de Slay by CeeCee James
While the circus holds little appeal for me as a place I might actually want to visit I must confess to finding it fascinating as a setting. Part of it is the idea that the circus brings communities together in temporary spaces but the thing that really intrigues me are the lifestyles of the people who live and work in them.
This can be a really rich source of story ideas. One of my favorite Golden Age mystery novels, Death of Anton, depicts the absurdities of circus life and the rivalries between circus performers brilliantly. I also enjoyed Stephen King’s Joyland and Revival, each of which depict carnie life and the characters who choose to live that way quite colorfully.
CeeCee James’ Cirque de Slay also explores the relationships between the various performers who make up a circus company. The book is told from the perspective of ‘Trixie’ who performs a routine as The Smallest Lady Godiva, riding around the ring on horseback in a flesh-colored costume. She accidentally stumbles upon the body of the bearded lady but rather than report it, she decides to keep quiet and wait for someone else to discover it.
Trixie is not a particularly willing or enthusiastic sleuth. She is someone who is wary of getting drawn into these sorts of intrigues and she is aware of the risk that she might upset the Ringmaster who was rumored to be involved with the victim. Instead she is pushed into getting involved when the situation threatens to involve her anyway.
While Trixie is not a natural investigator being quite shy around other members of the company, she is able to use her talent for hiding to good effect. She is often able to go unnoticed by others as she moves around the circus and in doing so she is able to absorb information and sometimes discover physical clues. James doesn’t push this too far however and I think she succeeds in creating a credible skill set for a high school dropout with something of a tragic past.
Many of the supporting characters also stand out as being convincing and dimensional which is a pleasant surprise considering how short a book it is. James establishes a sense that some cliques exist within the company and while we only get to know a small portion of them, it was not hard to believe that they were part of a bigger, vibrant community of performers.
The mystery is perhaps a little less fully developed although I think it is pitched well for the page count and the main character’s skills as a sleuth. James provides us with several suspects to consider but while there are attempts to lay false trails and red herrings to distract the reader, I think many will identify the guilty party early on because no other suspect feels quite as credible.
It is possible that the mystery may have seemed stronger had more attention been given to building up the other suspects but that brevity is a positive for the book in several other ways. For one thing, the pacing is brisk and chapters frequently end on small reveals, encouraging you to keep reading. Also, by focusing so strongly on Trixie’s story and her interactions with several other characters James ends up writing a book that feels like it has some surprising thematic discussions about identity, valuing yourself and building a sense of family and community outside more traditional family structures.
None of those ideas are necessarily revolutionary but they are worked together very effectively within her character and the case brings out some of these themes in added detail. This causes her to reflect on her relationship to the other members of the company as she ponders what to do and who she can rely on and I found those moments to be some of the most effective in the story. There is even a pretty charming little romance subplot that adds some interest and color, particularly in the final few chapters.
As enjoyable as the story is, unfortunately I did find its solution to be a little underwhelming. One part of the conclusion struck me as very tidy but unlikely to work in the way some of those involved intended and given the possibilities of the big top setting, it is hard not to feel that a victim dead on their dressing room floor is a bit of a vanilla murder method. While I understand that the cozy style precludes some more macabre ways of killing, I do wish that the method had been a closer match for the drama of its setting.
On the whole though I found this to be a speedy and entertaining read that should appeal to cozy fans looking for a story with a colorful setting. The series certainly seems to have plenty of promise and I was pleased to see that a second volume is already out so I will look forward to returning to the Concello Circus in the future to see what else the author makes of this premise.