Honk, Honk, My Darling by James Finn Garner

OK, now this needs a little explanation. You see, in an unnamed city, there are various districts. Top Town, the location of this novel, is populated almost entirely by circus folk. There are high-wire acts, daredevils, circus freaks and clowns. One of these, Rex Koko has turned his back on the circus life and become a private investigator. When he is hired by an ex-trapeze artist to find his philandering wife, he stumbles upon a much bigger mess than he anticipated… Cowboys, midget policemen and black widows – can Rex find the killer before the killer finds him – or he gets arrested for murder himself?

OK, you’ve got me. It was free on Kindle last weekend – that’s how I found out about this “Clown Noir” novel. But does the bastard love-child of P.T. Barnum and Raymond Chandler have a spring in its step or does it need concrete size 42 shoes before it has a swim in the river?

Crikey, that was a weird read. Initially at least. I’d recommend, if you were to pick this one up on Kindle (and while it’s not free any more, it’s still only 77p), then stick with it. And read the blurb first.

Now I’m the first to whinge about the misleading or plot-spoiling blurbs on books, but this is the first plot-enhancing blurb. It took me a while to realise what was going on in terms of Top Town. It’s explained nice and clearly on the back of the book, but if you just read the inside, you have to piece it together yourself, and I was rather confused for a while. Throw in the author’s use of, presumably, circus slang, which also needs a little deciphering, and you may find yourself a little lost. I’ll raise my hand and admit that I nearly stopped reading a couple of times in the first quarter of the book, but I’m glad I persevered.

Basically, this is a sort of alternate reality, where circus performers remain circus performers even when not performing. Rex, for example, has retired from clowning but is still a clown. The bar for the high-wire acts has a high-wire in it for the patrons to perform on. And so on. I think it’s set pre-war, around 1935, due to a couple of comments about Hitler, but that’s a guess to be honest. Usually I applaud an author that doesn’t spell things out, but I think I needed a little more explanation at the start. Maybe that’s me personally – I’m not up on circus slang and the other side of the story, what I presume is “Noir” is also not something that I’m remotely knowledgeable of. I saw The Maltese Falcon once – I think I got to the end of it…

As for the mystery, well it’s not, really. One out of two potential masterminds must be behind things, and we follow Rex until he meets the villain – not works out, really, except by a process of elimination. But it’s not that sort of mystery – it’s more of a straight crime novel. I’m sure there are a bucketload of nods to the noir genre that went right over my head.

But it does have its charm. As the book went on, I was growing more and more enamoured with the writing. It’s genuinely funny in places and Rex is a likeable lead, once you get a handle on him. I wouldn’t say that it’s a classic, but there are worse things in life to spend 77p on. Worth a look if you want something a little… well, a lot different. I would say, though, that there is another book that I read a while ago that does a similar sort of thing, of which there will be a review soon, and I think it did it better. Let’s see…

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14 comments

  1. I started this one not so long ago and then set it aside. I still am planning to get back to it but you know the one about good intentions. What I’ve read so far reminded me of the Stuart Kaminsky book that “starred” Emmett Kelly, the great circus clown.

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    • I can appreciate how easy this book is to put aside, but I think it is worth sticking with it. As I said, it’s not my usual genre, but it is trying something new, successfully, and that is to be applauded.

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  2. thank you for the mention! I’m glad you liked the book. I’ll admit it’s a weird read (so, pity me for the voices in my head!). If you need any help with the slang, my website at rexkoko.com has a glossary, under the tab for “Parlari”. Parlari is the special language that European performers used to use to confuse others. Looks like even when I try to make things clearer, I cloud them over!

    I’m glad you appreciated the setting as an alternate reality. I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain the conceit to people. It’s almost a fantasy farce detective novel, but “alternate reality” describes it very well.

    Hope you stay with it, Bill!

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