Friday, June 15, 2012

Carrion Death: Vultures in the Sky (1935), by Todd Downing

It was a scene which Rennert was never to forget, a taut fear-clad moment in which eight dissimilar people faced one another, drawn together by the magnet of a common dread of what might lie beyond the light....

The vultures gather....
"Carrion Death" recalls the titles of both a recent Michael Stanley African-set mystery novel and one of the most memorably grim and grisly (grimsly?) horror stories from EC Comics in the 1950s (best known today from the 1991 "Tales from the Crypt" television series adaptation, with Twin Peaks' star Kyle MacLachlan in the memorable lead role of an escaped convict lost in the desert while rather inconveniently handcuffed to the corpse of the cop he killed).

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....
Most of Vultures takes place on the Monterrey-San Luis Potosi leg of the long and tense rail journey, with the climax occurring after the cars occupied by the main cast of characters have been uncoupled from the rest of the train and stranded in the desert north of San Luis Potosi (oh, and the electricity has gone out as well for good measure).  Now how is that for a "closed setting" mystery?

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
The first death takes place, memorably, on the train as it passes through a railway tunnel during the Monterrey-Saltillo leg of its journey.  More deaths follow before the train reaches Mexico City.  These circumstances certainly give added impetus to Rennert's crime investigation!

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....
Nevertheless, Vultures is no pale imitation of Express.  Although it lacks the singular brilliance of Christie's solution in Express (while this solution may have infuriated Raymond Chandler, most of us over the years have loved it), Vultures is a more exciting tale than Christie's and the Mexican setting--one Downing knew absolutely down to the ground--is powerfully evoked and fascinating.

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 Downing's immediately preceding mystery novel, The Cat Screams, Vultures in the Sky received the honor of being designated a Crime Club Selection by Downing's publisher, the prestigious Doubleday, Doran.  While The Cat Screams was compared to the work of the American mystery "Atmosphere Queen" Mignon Eberhart, at heart it's a closed setting, Anglo-American country house tale relocated to Mexico (Taxco specifically): nicely-clued, well-written and interesting, yet not nearly as tense and gripping as Vultures.  But then, truth be told, few Golden Age true detective novels are as tense and gripping as Vultures.

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.


  1. I've never read anything by Downing I don't think but certainly sounds good - very intrigued to hear about a possible new edition though, thanks!


  2. Curt,

    IIRC, one of my first comments on your blog was in regards to Todd Downing, and how disappointed I was over The Cat Screams, but this post has rekindled my interest and I will gladly give him another shot when this one becomes available again. Thanks for feeding our addictions. ;)

    The Cat Screams was reprinted a few years ago by the Wildside Press.

  3. I've never read Downing but your review certainly makes me want to do so. I hope that new edition does make it to fruition.

    Ron Smyth

  4. I love the idea of Hugh Rennert, the customs agent who works the Mexican border. No other American mystery writer comes close to inventing a series character that original in the 1930s. I have several of Downing's books and only attempted THE CAT SCREAMS years ago, but lost interest in it. The Crime Club DJs for the Todd Downing books are fantastic! I do have a copy of VULTURES IN THE SKY and think I will have to read it this summer.

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  6. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the comments, sorry for my lateness in replying.

    I know TomCat wasn't crazy about The Cat Scream, but I think it was probably oversold as a book of terror. when it's really more sedate than that. I think the background in native legend is quite interesting though.

    Vultures is much faster-paced, as is Murder on the Tropic, from the same year (though Vultures essentially is another country house, or hacienda, mystery).

    All these books, along with Murder on Tour, should be out in new editions next month, along with my book on Downing. The other titles will follow.

    Pietro, it's interesting that Downing's books were well-received in Italy. I probably will do another book by him on the blog, but don't want too turn this into the Todd Downing blog with too many pieces!

  7. Pietro, I am reposting your comment with spoiler warnings added.

    Pietro said:

    Great writer Todd Downing. And not so well known as he should be.
    His novels (especially the first two) were written primarily on the basis of anthropological knowledge of the same Downing (and this, surprisingly anticipated the atmosphere carried out by Tony Hillerman, a great writer of thrillers, who died four years ago).


    The hidden order in the novels of Downing: revolutionizing the belief that the Indian was dangerous, and were the enemy or criminal, reversing the terms of the question, and present he instead as a victim.
    Moreover, in all his novels, the murderers are never natives, except in his last novel, The Hour Shadowless (1945), in which a young indigenous person is forced by an emergency situation to kill.


    In Italy were translated more or less eigthy years ago, the second, the third, and the fourth among the novels by Downing: The Cat Screams, 1934 (La pensione di Fournier); Vultures in the Sky,1935 (Il terribile viaggio); Murder on the Tropic,1935 (La luce gialla).
    If Vultures in the Sky speaks of a train journey, Murder on the Tropic (1935) speaks of the Pan American Highway, as well as the eighth novel, Night Over Mexico (1939).
    I anticipated what would you have said in the next article, Curtis, speaking of the Pan American Highway?