The full title of the this novel – at least the edition I read – is COMMON PEOPLE: MURDER IN SIDESHOW ALLEY which gives a little more of a flavour of what is to come. The book’s original American title – THE OUTSIDERS (1945) – also offers a good feel for its story’s subject matter Initially published as a serialised story in an Australian magazine in 1943, as a novel it was first released a year later and tells the story of a group of ‘freaks’…carnival and circus acts who do what they can to get by in a world that either pointedly ignores them or stares rudely. The central character is not really one of them but feels an affinity with these outsiders having grown up an orphan and never really fitting in with ‘normal’ people. Pelham – or Pel as he’s generally known – is what today we’d call an entrepreneur but who is described in the book as
…he was city – a lurker, a fellow who lived on his wits, with no trade, no profession, relying on his imagination for his bread and butter.
His central work in this story is the financing. promoting and running of a 10-week show displaying the world’s most successful starving man to the people of London. Business-wise things are going well but on the eve of his big show’s commencement an old friend of Pel’s is murdered. This horror happens in the flat underneath the one in which Pel and his sideshow act friends are celebrating so they all become potential suspects and at least one policeman is champing at the bit to arrest at least one of ‘the freaks’.
The character of Pel must surely be at least a little autobiographical given A.E. (Archibald Edward) Martin’s own potted history which includes several years on the European carnival circuit with Houdini as his mentor. He also worked as a journalist, magazine owner, travel agent and publicist for a variety of the kinds of acts we meet in the book before turning his hand to writing (both fiction and non fiction). This breadth of experience gives COMMON PEOPLE its authentic feel and the sense that the reader is being drawn into a different world rather than being asked to point and snigger at it which could so easily have happened. There’s no hint that the author is laughing at or exploiting these people which gives the reader permission to simply be fascinated in learning about this truly absorbing world.
The plot rocks along at a fair pace with Pel hooking up with a couple of more enlightened policemen than the one who sneers at and suspects all the carnival acts. Even so there are a couple of genuine suspects among the crowd and suspicions must be worked through before a satisfactory resolution comes to pass. All the while we are treated to the trials and tribulations of being a carnival act or the promoter of one which provides the story with a lot of warm humour.
My only disappointment in reading the book – given the author was born in my home town – is that there is very little Australian about it. Aside from one character claiming to be an Australian that is. But for someone not terribly fond of the circus I found myself completely absorbed in this tale and its characters and gripped by the classic whodunit suspense. I’m grateful (as ever) to the people at Wakefield Press who included this story in the series of forgotten Australian crime classics they released in the 80’s and 90’s.
Publisher: this edition Wakefield Press 
Length: 212 pages