|The vultures gather....|
But though "Carrion Death" admittedly is not an original title, I felt that it simply begged to be used for a piece on Todd Downing's third detective novel, Vultures in the Sky (1935), a marvelous tale about a murderous Mexican train trip taken from Monterrey to Mexico City by nine ill-fated passengers, along with assorted crew. A goodly number will not make their destinations.
|And Death came too....|
This section of the novel not surprisingly is the most gripping, but the narrative pace throughout the story is terrific. Besides a determined murderer running amok on the train, there's engine trouble, an impending railway strike and talk of sabotage by Cristeros (see the recent film For Greater Glory). And of course all the passengers besides Downing's series detective, the impressive Hugh Rennert of the United States Treasury Department, Customs Service, seem to be hiding mysterious secrets.
|Death in the tunnel|
At times one feels one is reading an Edgar Wallace thriller; yet Downing, though a self-professed admirer of Wallace, manages to keep Vultures tethered to true detection. In this respect Vultures is a great deal like the novels of John Dickson Carr, another writer Downing greatly admired. In other words, Vultures manages, like so many of Carr's miraculous works, to be both viscerally exciting and ratiocinative, an uncommon feat indeed.
Perhaps the most obvious authorial influence on Vultures, however, comes from another of the mystery genre's great writers, Agatha Christie. Downing read Christie's Murder on the Orient Express the year he began writing Vultures and he immediately praised the Crime Queen's novel unreservedly.
To be sure, part of Downing's first detective novel, Murder on Tour (1933), takes place on a train as well, but the influence of Express on Vultures is unmistakable (it's even suspected that a child abductor may be on the train).
|Death in the desert....|
Furthermore, Downing's characters--particularly Rennert and the two women passengers--are memorable. Indeed, the older woman, Trescinda Talcott, is so well-limned that she seems as if she stepped out of the pages of a first-rate mainstream novel, proof that the detective story form is no necessary barrier to a writer's achieving literary distinction.
|a Crime Club Selection|
Like most of Todd Downing's detective novels, Vultures in the Sky is now pretty hard to find, particularly in editions priced under, say, fifty dollars. But you just may be seeing a quality, more affordable edition of this novel, which Bill Pronzini called "an expertly crafted whodunit" fairly soon. Stay tuned!
|Vanegas lay flatly prostrate under the afternoon sun. |
An unnatural quietness seemed to weigh upon the usually noisy platform....
Note: the three train photos (2, 3, 4) come from this fascinating blog about railways in Mexico. I urge everyone to take a look at Mexican Railroads-TPT.