Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Todd Downing: Murders in Mexico

Todd Downing was born in Atoka, Oklahoma in 1902.  Downing was a quarter Choctaw, the Popular Library informed readers in its paperback edition of Downing's best-known detective novel, The Cat Screams, and his paternal grandmother was a survivor of the Trail of Tears.

Atoka in 1900, two years before Todd Downing's birth
Downing attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees.  He taught as an instructor at the university and during summers lived in Mexico and conducted guided tours there.

Todd Downing in the 1930s
Not only was Downing fascinated with Mexican history and culture, however; he also was a voracious reader of detective fiction.  In 1933, he wrote Murder on Tour, his first of a series of detective novels mostly set in Mexico.

Published in the United States by Putnam's, Murder on Tour enjoyed only modest success, but his second Mexican mystery novel, The Cat Screams, won him greater attention.  It was published in the United States by Doubleday, Doran's prestigious Crime Club, which would produce the rest of his novels in the United States as well.

The Crime Club was quite emphatic that it saw The Cat Screams as something of an event:

"Only in exceptional instances is the first book of  a new writer on the Crime Club list made a Crime Club Book of the Month.  Here is the exception.  The author, as a creator of atmosphere, suspense, and horror, is reminiscent of Mignon G. Eberhart.  His plot, though exotic, is plausible and logical and, stylistically, he is far superior to the average mystery writer."
The bookplate (designed by Juanita Gould in 1933) featured below is found in a copy of The Cat Screams.

Downing's next mystery, Vultures in the Sky, set on an eerie train traveling from Texas to Mexico City (think Murder on the Orient Express with less plot and more tension) was also a Crime Club selection.

The Crime Club noted how The Cat Screams had "won high praise from the critics" and declared that its author was "rapidly making his way to the foremost rank of American mystery fiction writing."

Downing went on to publish six more detective novels, including the excellent The Last Trumpet (1937) and Night Over Mexico (1938).  Most of these novels featured as investigator the intrepid U. S. Customs Agent Hugh Rennert.

Yet Downing's last novel appeared in 1941, before he had even reached the age of forty.  Downing, who had once seemed headed to a cosmopolitan literary life in New York City, instead retired not only from that life, but from teaching at the University of Oklahoma.

Downing returned to the small town of Atoka, where he taught high school and later the Choctaw language at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.  He resided in the old family home with his mother, staying on in the house after her death in the 1960s. 

While being treated at the local hospital in early 1974, he died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 71.

Todd Downing in the 1960s

Here is the rest of the series of Crime Club dust jackets for the Todd Downing detective novels.  I particularly like that bull on The Last Trumpet (about the death of a bullfighter) and the surrealistic quality of The Lazy Lawrence Murders.  But all are splendid.

Todd Downing also attained some popularity in Great Britain, where, for example, the esteemed crime fiction critic Torquemada proclaimed Downing "a born detective writer."

Overall, Downing probably is most important in the history of the crime fiction genre for being a notable American "local color" mystery writer of the 1930s.  An admirer of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, Downing attempted to put both atmosphere and narrative dash in his books, along with the Mexican "exoticism" for which he was most celebrated.

The Todd Downing Detective Novels:

Murder on Tour (1933)
The Cat Screams (1934)
Vultures in the Sky (1935)
Murder on the Tropic (1935)
The Case of the Unconquered Sisters (1936)
The Last Trumpet (1937)
Night Over Mexico (1938)
Death Under the Moonflower (1939)
The Lazy Lawrence Murders (1941)


  1. Hi Curt, you are doing very well with your finely researched studies (Detection Club, Connington, your next book on the Humdrum school that we all are eagerly waiting, now with your Blog and next I wonder what else). With you among us, the Golden Age detectino school is in sure hands. Your post on Downing is very interesting. I have some first editions of his books and a sample of his signature in an inscibed copy of "The Cat Screams". An author who doesn't deserve to be forgotten. Best, Mauro

  2. Mauro, great to hear from you. Thanks for the comments. I will try to keep the blog going with interesting material--there's certainly a lot out there!

  3. On a more contemporary note––Murder in Mexico is my series of eleven mysteries set in and around the upscale expat colony of San Miguel de Allende. Artist Paul Zacher is drawn into crime investigation because ‘he might see things differently.’ Maybe it’s time for the rich humanity of Mexico to show through all the narco headlines! Ready for the real Mexico, beyond the phony news reports? Take a look at this suspenseful and often funny series, available in Print, Kindle, Nook, & Kobo. Start with ‘Twenty Centavos’ by trying a sample on my website.