Dorothy Daniels – The House on Circus Hill (1972)

Review by Justin Tate

Coach rides through thunderstorms, falling chandeliers, inexplicable music in a spooky mansion, multiple love interests—one of whom may be a murderer—what’s not to love? Daniels cooks up a classic mystery recipe and adds carnival atmosphere for extra spice. Exotic animals, attractive acrobats, romantic little people, and other Cirque du Gothic elements are present in nearly every scene. Oh, and clowns. Lots of clowns! Consider, for example, this gem:

My pale pink tights were easy to see in the gloom. There’d be some time before the forest would be jet black and I realized I didn’t have that much time to get away from this clown with a knife.

If our heroine seems a little blasé in this paragraph, it’s because she’s been nearly killed a dozen times at this point. Murderous, knife-wielding clowns is just another day in the life of a beautiful, young circus owner.

Since the full 200 pages surrounds unexplained death and attempted murder, I’d place the book more squarely in the Murder Mystery category than the Gothic Romance as it is billed. Certainly there’s enough overlap that fans of either will be pleased, however.

Dorothy Daniels wrote some 150+ gothic novels during its heyday of the 1960’s and ‘70s. She clearly had her hand on the pulse of the fad. She doesn’t challenge readers with complex situations or unfamiliar character dilemmas. We’re not here to solve the world’s problems. This is escapist entertainment and a great way to unwind for a few hours. Further evidence to support this is on page 145 where there’s a cardboard ad inserted for Kent cigarettes. The depicted woman could not appear more relaxed as she lounges indulgently with her cancer stick.

Consensus: paced as tense as a tightrope and as dramatic as an acrobat’s performance, there’s little to critique other than the forgettable simplicity. That said, Daniels accomplishes more than most by crafting a mystery that leaves you questioning everyone until the final reveal. The atmosphere is unique, drawing you into the spectacular world of late-1800s circus life. It’s not great art, but it is a good time.

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