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At the Westbrook Hotel in New York, dentist Henry R. Bromley, in town for a convention, is drugged and thrown out of a window by a man who then steals a set of dental x-rays in Bromely's possession. Although the death is ruled a suicide, Bromley's nurse, Jane Adams, visits famous detective Brad Runyon, who is nicknamed "The Fat Man" because of his love of gourmet food, and begs him to help track down the killer. Runyon dismisses her but asks his partner, Bill Norton, to escort her to her plane to Los Angeles. When Bill comes back with the report that he was knocked out by an unseen assailant, Runyon takes the case. Jane reveals that the stolen x-rays belonged to a new patient, Roy Clark, who is now missing, along with all of his dental records. She describes Clark's first visit: He enters the office, disheveled and broke, needing a tooth extracted. When he returns for his appointment the following week, Roy suddenly has a chauffeur and a roll of cash, and although he makes another appointment, they never see him again. Runyon and Bill accompany Jane to Los Angeles, where they visit Clark's last known address, a horse ranch owned by Gene Gordon. Gordon tells them that Clark borrowed money but then left, and on the way out, Jane spots Tony, the man who chauffeured Clark. The next day, Runyon confronts Tony, who tells him to question a barfly named Pat Boyd for information about Clark. Runyon charms Pat with his surprisingly light-footed dancing, and she reminisces about her relationship with Clark: They meet at a bar when he protects her from unwanted advances, and although their love grows, he clearly has a secret. Finally, he reveals that he recently was released from prison. When she tells him she does not care, they marry, but four days later, he disappears. After leaving Pat, Runyon uses her photograph of Clark to uncover Clark's police records, which disclose that he used the name Ray Chevlin and was caught in an armored car robbery, during which his partners escaped. Runyon deduces that Clark must have left his share of the money with Gordon and Gordon's partner, Happy Stevens, who then bankrolled him when he returned from prison, just before his second visit to Dr. Bromley. Runyon visits Clark's old prison roommate, clown Ed Deets, who recalls their days together: In prison, Clark tells Deets that his partners have his cut waiting for him when he gets out. Clark then describes the robbery: The four partners stop an armored car and drive it to the racetrack to pick up the day's delivery. When the racetrack guards become suspicious, a gunfight breaks out and Clark is shot while the others flee. Meanwhile, in the present, Gordon and Stevens, who fear Runyon's snooping, send a goon to Runyon's hotel room. When Jane shows up, believing she knows who the murderer is, the man strangles her. Runyon then discovers that an unidentified man was found burned to death in a truck on the same day Clark disappeared. He traces the rental truck to Deets, who used it to transport theatrical costumes and now has started his own circus in Tarzana. Before visiting Deets, Runyon accuses Gordon of having killed Clark in order to protect their share of the robbery money, and after he leaves, Gordon and Stevens plot to kill Deets. In Tarzana, Runyon describes to Deets what he believes has occurred: Deets gets out of jail before Clark and blackmails Gordon and Stevens into giving him Clark's share of the money in return for his silence about their involvement in the robbery. When Clark gets out and demands his share, Deets lends him a truck and sets it on fire, then kills Dr. Bromley and Jane and steals the x-rays, realizing that only dental records can be used to identify incinerated bodies. Deets listens to Runyon's story and then pulls a gun, just as Gordon and Stevens arrive and begin shooting. Runyon kills Gordon, and Deets shoots Stevens and runs into the circus tent. The police arrive and shoot him from the high wire into the net. Before he dies, Deets explains that he just wanted the money to fulfill a lifetime dream of owning his own circus.