Nightmare Alley was written and set in America during the Depression, where people suffered from poverty, unemployment and loss. Times were hard and they grasped at any sign of hope that things would get better. Travelling carnivals were popular and offered cheap entertainment and employment for many people and this is where this book opens.
There is some detail in the type of acts that appear in the 'carny', such as circus freaks (referred to as 'geeks'), psychics, magic shows and so on, but all is not as it seems. The protagonist learns that there fraudulent methods involved and he becomes very skilled at conning people. Eventually he decides to leave the carnival and set himself up as a spiritualist minister involved with seances and contacting the dead. His aim is make money immorally and illegally.
Quite late in the book he meets up with a psychologist who has a profound effect on him. At the time of Freudian theories, the psychologist suggests that he has 'father-figure' issues, amongst other things. However, she is as morally ambiguous as he is.
This is a very dark book about hope, fear, deceit, guilt, power and greed, and how far people will go to exploit others in order to feed ambition. There is an unusual chapter heading pattern of using tarot cards for each of the chapters with a brief description of the card's meaning - and it is not irrelevant. The book is written in the third person mainly from the protagonist's perspective, but sometimes from others, which adds an extra dimension but would have been clearer if they were in different chapters.
An hallucinogenic and horrific journey down a nightmare alley indeed. Recommended those who enjoy the power of mind-twisting reads and know that what we see depends on what we're looking for. A true noir ending too.
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Originally published in 1946. This edition published by Bloomsbury on 9 December 2021.
Advanced review copy supplied by the publisher.