Circus by Alistair MacLean (1975)

‘What is it, Bruno? What drives you? You are a driven man, don’t you know that? You don’t work for the CIA and this damnable anti-matter can’t mean all the world to you. Yet I know, I know you’re willing to die to get inside that damnable prison. Why, Bruno, why?’ (p.90)

The setting is, well, a circus, one of the most famous in America, whose top attraction is the renowned trapeze artist Bruno Wildermann, an emigré from an unnamed East European country. The novel opens with two agents from the CIA going to the circus to enjoy the show but mainly to see Bruno and his two brothers, the ‘Blind Eagles’. Afterwards, they approach Bruno and the circus-owner, Wrinfield, to ask if they will cooperate with the CIA and take the circus on a tour of Eastern Europe. One of the stops would just happen to be near a particular prison-cum-research laboratory in the city of Cranau, where our spies tell us that the dastardly communists are working on some kind of anti-matter weapon. Bruno’s mission would be to break into it. Bruno and Wrinfield agree. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost immediately the ‘MacLean mayhem’ begins, namely both the agents we met in the opening pages are murdered: one gets an ice pick through the neck in his apartment; the other is lured back to the circus where he is thrown into the cage full of tigers which tear him to pieces.

Wrinfield and Bruno are visited by the man who appears to be in charge of the operation, discreetly referred to as ‘the Admiral’ and, despite these unfortunate deaths, they assure him they want to go ahead. So the Admiral hustles things along: getting them to cancel their American tour so as to crack on to Europe; inserting a doctor, Harper, into the circus to act as contact; and giving Wrinfield a new ‘PA’, the pretty young Maria. Bruno is told to pretend to fall in love with her. Astonishingly, the pair find themselves falling in love for real.

The circus plays a few more American dates then loads onto a cargo ship and crosses the Atlantic. Wrinfield’s nephew, Henry, has come along for the ride and because he’s taken a fancy to pretty young Maria. Maria and Bruno put up with his harmless flirting, until his snooping discovers that some of the crew are bugging her cabin – and they realise that he’s discovered them – at which point he is coshed and thrown overboard.

In other words, this side-plot shows that someone is seeking to undermine the mission before it’s properly started, though it is never really revealed who. (In fact, by the book’s end I’d completely forgotten that I was meant to be interested in finding out who murdered the two agents, Pilgrim, Fawcett, and loverboy Henry. These earlier sections just don’t hang very well with the later sections: the text as a whole lacks the joined-up narrative suspense of the earlier, successful novels. It feels more ‘bitty’.)

A part of the book’s comic strip superficiality is the way everyone takes this and the earlier murders in their stride ie they have zero emotional impact. Instead, the circus unloads in Italy onto a long, specially-built circus train, and commence their European tour which brings them across the Iron Curtain into the unnamed East European country.

Here there’s a lot more palaver, with the two ‘Blind Eagles’ of Bruno’s act going missing, presumed kidnapped from the circus train. We meet the Head of the Secret Police, Sergius (who has only a sinister hole where his mouth should be, the result of some horrible wartime injury) who visits the circus, greets all the performers warmly, then listens to Bruno’s bugged conversations with Maria (everyone’s phone is bugged in this novel) and is generally shown to be one step ahead of the conspirators. We witness a scene in which Sergius and his deputy eavesdrop on everything Bruno is telling Maria about the upcoming heist, then turn away chuckling, thinking they have these poor American agents completely under control.

Except that, in the big twist of the book, Bruno and his team of experts from the circus (Kan Dahn the strongman, Roebuck the lasso expert, Manuelo the knife thrower) break into the prison/laboratory one day earlier than everyone expected. Ha!

The plan depends on Bruno’s ability to walk – balancing with a trapeze artist’s pole – the 300 yards along a power cable (turned off) from the power station over the barbed wire fence & walls into the prison/lab. Which he does in quite a tense scene. Once there he disables the guards with a poison gas squirter (very Man from UNCLE), helps the rest of the gang shimmy up ropes and then they:

  • move systematically around the watch-towers, disabling & tying up the guards
  • break quietly into the lab
  • find the bedroom of the evil scientist, van Diemen, and extract from him the formula for the dastardly secret weapon
  • move on to the prison where they find not only the two missing acrobats – presumed kidnapped earlier in the story, in fact held by the State Police – but also Bruno’s parents, locked up in his youth. It was their arrest which prompted his escape to the West all those years earlier. Aha. For him, the whole mission has been about releasing them.

BUT – it’s at exactly this moment of triumph that the voice of the Head of Secret Police, Sergius, says ‘Drop your guns.’ Oops. He is standing there with a gun, next to none other than Dr Harper. Hang on! Isn’t this the Dr Harper who ‘the Admiral’ asked the circus to take along as the CIA contact? Does this mean that – Dr Harper is a fiendish double agent? Was it Dr Harper who arranged the murder of Fawcett and Pilgrim back in the States, and of poor Henry on the ocean liner? The cad!

For a moment things look bad for Bruno and our boys. But only for a moment. In a split second of distraction, Manuelo throws a knife at Sergius, Dr Harper shoots van Dieman (who Bruno was using as a shield) at the same moment as Bruno fires one of his poison darts which hits Harper in the neck. Wham! The three baddies – Sergius, Harper, van Diemen – are dead. Quick!

Our boys leg it. As more or less all the guards are gassed and tied up, they simply shin down the rope to street level, and jump into various cars. Bruno and Maria head for the woods where they rendezvous with a helicopter which flies them to a US ship waiting in the Baltic, and so back to the States. The three performers motor back to the circus in time to carry out their performances and thus have the perfect alibi. While the deputy head of the Secret Police is distraught to come across the prison and lab full of tied-up guards and – horror of horrors! – the corpses of his boss (Sergius), the American double agent (Harper), and their leading scientist (van Diemen).

These later MacLean novels all end very abruptly with only a few sentences of wind-up. Same happens here, as Bruno and Maria walk into the office of ‘the Admiral’ back at CIA headquarters, where they announce they got married on the ship back from Europe. Bruno also reveals that he tore up the plans for the dastardly weapon without even looking at them (good chap) and the Admiral is so cross he threatens to fire him. Fire him?

Because of course, dear Reader, Bruno Wildermann is not only the world’s greatest trapeze artist – he is also one of the CIA’s best agents 🙂

This makes a bit of a nonsense of the opening scenes where the CIA agents go along to check Bruno out and ask if he’ll undertake the mission. But this isn’t a book which encourages too much thought, you’re just meant to sit back and enjoy the ride.

In MacLean’s classic novels (Night Without End to Puppet On a Chain) the tension is ratcheted up so high you can hardly breathe while you read them. This one, like the previous couple of novels, mostly lacks that element of nailbiting tension because you know all too well what is going to happen: some brutal murders set the tone, and there may a number of tense and exciting scene – but we know our hero will turn out to know, or to be, more than he lets on and – after handling a few, sometimes quite brutal, setbacks – will manage to defeat the baddies and emerge from the climactic confrontation to the cheers of the crowd and kisses from his new girlfriend. Or wife. This is more or less what happens in Caravan to Vaccarès, The Way to Dusty Death, Breakheart Pass and this one.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Circus

Fontana paperback edition of Circus

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.

First person narrator – the classic novels

1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.

Third phase

1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.


1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

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