Sunday, February 24, 2013

Detecting Todd Downing: A Conversation with Professor James H. Cox

James H. Cox
James H. Cox is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin.

He is the author of Muting White Noise: Native American and European Novel Traditions (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009) and The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

In two chapters of the latter work, The Red Land to the South, Professor Cox discusses the writing of Todd Downing (1902-1974), the Oklahoma Choctaw Golden Age detective novelist who published nine mysteries of his own between 1933 and 1941, in addition to reviewing several hundred mysteries in the 1930s.

Todd Downing is the subject of my own Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (Coachwhip, 2013).  Moreover, eight of Todd Downing's nine detective novels (including his highly praised The Cat Screams, 1934, and Vultures in the Sky, 1935) were reprinted by Coachwhip in 2012, and the remaining title, Murder on Tour (1933), will be reprinted this March.

For previous posts discussing Todd Downing and another Oklahoma crime writer, Jim Thompson, see A Tale of Two Citizens, Part One and Part Two.

Professor Cox was kind enough sit down with The Passing Tramp for an interview about Todd Downing.  I hope you enjoy it!

Todd Downing
Curt Evans: In The Red Land to the South, you call Todd Downing “one of the most prolific and most neglected American Indian writers of the twentieth century.

Three questions: Why do you think he is important, why do you think he has  been neglected and how did you become interested in him and his work?

James Cox: From my position as a scholar of American Indian literature, Downing is important as a writer who depicts contemporary Indigenous American people in a popular genre.

As anyone who watches television or regularly goes to the movies knows, nineteenth century American Indians are far more prevalent in popular and mass culture than contemporary Native people--particularly urban Indigenous people like the ones Downing sometimes represents. Downing's novels, though, show Indigenous people living in the modern world. It is much easier to ignore the civil and human rights of Indigenous people if you believe, (1) that they have disappeared, and/or, (2) that once they are modern they are no longer really Indigenous.

Downing's neglect in part has to do with the fact that his books went out of print so quickly. Research has become much easier now with the presence of on-line book dealers!

Downing's neglect in American Indian literary studies is curious, though. He was fairly well-known in Oklahoma. He lived into the 1970s, too, and scholars have had at least a little familiarity with him since then.

However, literary scholars have only recently--say in the last twenty years--started to think critically about popular genres like detective fiction or science fiction. Downing also didn't write about the kinds of American Indians that were interesting to many scholars: not the nineteenth century Plains Indians of so many Hollywood movies, but the activists and otherwise politically engaged Native people of the civil rights era. Downing was working against the grain of multiple trends, both popular and academic.

I became interested in his work when I started writing my second book. I had read several works by American Indian writers about Mexico and Indigenous Mexican people. I ran across a reference to The Mexican Earth, bought a copy, and read it in one sitting. 

I confess to appreciating the politics of the book, that is, his passionate defense of Indigenous Mexicans. It is a great book in other ways, though. Downing writes in a clear style. He is clever and funny and often just this side of scandalous. He is very good at depicting the Mexican landscape as well. I bought his novels, then, whenever I could find an inexpensive copy. I read Vultures in the Sky first and was completely hooked.

I enjoyed Downing's mastery of the conventions of detective fiction--classical British rather than hard-boiled American--but particularly liked the Mexican settings and, of course, the presence of Indigenous peoples and Downing's consideration of the social and political issues that shaped in part their mid-twentieth century lives (manual labor; health; the theft of remains and artifacts).

Finally, Downing is simply a fascinating person: the Indian Territory-born, fluent Choctaw speaking son of a Choctaw politician who was a Professor of Spanish, a tour guide, an employee of several East Coast advertising agencies, and a novelist.

Atoka, Oklahoma county officials and courthouse employees, c. 1910.
County Treasurer Henry Bond, a full-blood Choctaw and friend of
Sam Downing, Todd Downing's father, is seen in the center of the photograph.

Curt Evans: Downing’s sense of humor comes out in his book reviews as well.  I agree, it’s very appealing.

The Mexican settings of most of Downing’s detective novels seem to me his signature contribution to Golden Age detective fiction.  In his day especially, such intensive exploration of the culture of a foreign country—England excepted, of course!--in an American detective novel seems remarkable. 

Although many people still seem disinclined to embrace mystery literature as a serious art form, as you point out, I know you would agree with me that Downing, despite his sense of humor and modesty, felt strongly about a number of important issues and intentionally used the mystery form to explore these issues, just as writers did in mainstream literature. 

In The Red Land to the South you discuss Downing’s second published and path-breaking detective novel, The Cat Screams, at considerable length.  You argue that in this book “Downing disguises a story of indigenous resistance and revolutionary promise within a conventional story of detection.”  I think that’s very well-put.  In fact, I quote it in my own book!  Could you expand on this idea a bit here?  Without spoilers, of course!

James Cox: There is a funny but also serious scene in The Mexican Earth during which Downing stops to give a ride to two Indigenous Mexican farm workers. He describes other cars with U.S. license plates driving by the farm workers at high speeds. Inside the cars he sees startled faces. The next day at a hotel, another American says he thought Downing had been accosted by Communist agitators. Downing humanizes Indigenous Mexicans and the working class while suggesting that many Americans do not understand either Mexico or Indigenous Mexicans.

Thank you very much for the kind words about my reading of The Cat Screams! Downing does such a wonderful job in the novel describing the American colony in Taxco.

To avoid spoilers, I'll just say that the novel contains two overlapping mysteries. The first is the conventional mystery that Rennert investigates. The second is not a conventional mystery but a political, cultural, and historical mystery about Indigenous Mexican people in the modern world. The reference to a revival of Native practices and curanderas in the opening newspaper article begins this part of the narrative. The meaning of a word in Nahuatl -- or what I recently learned speakers of the language usually call Mexicanoh (thank you, Adam Coon) -- is also important. There is a jade mask of an Aztec god that is important, too.

All the references to Indigenous Mexican people form a set of clues. I propose one reading of these clues, but I'm sure other readers will have better ones!

Curt Evans: Well, I personally think you show how The Cat Screams is really an exceptionally sophisticated Golden Age detective novel. 

I found the depth of the novel quite fascinating on rereading it.  There are these two worlds, this outer one of these American tourists and expatriates and Mexicans of European lineage and then this inner world of indigenous people that eludes so many of the other characters, who are either hostile to it or simply indifferent and superior.  Hugh Rennert, of course, is interested in it, because, like Downing he is fascinated with Mexican culture and believes it has something to tell him about life.

It’s a clichĂ© to talk about mystery novels that “transcend the genre” but I think in The Cat Screams Downing does show how you can combine a complex mystery plot with thematic depth.  Do you feel he was able to do this in other detective novels as well?  Personally, I find the one he published after The Cat Screams, Vultures in the Sky, another really fascinating story in its depiction of Mexico, not to mention that’s it’s simply a thrilling book, one of the most tense mysteries I have read!

James Cox: Yes, I agree, The Cat Screams is a rewarding mystery that also encourages readers to think about the colonial history of the Americas and the conflict between Europeans and Indigenous people. I can't emphasize enough, too, how unusual and important it is that Downing represents Indigenous people as maintaining their sense of who they are as Indigenous while they are also fully participating in the modern world.

the 2012 Coachwhip edition
This last observation is a good segue into Vultures in the Sky [note: see my review of this novel here--TPT], in which an Indigenous man plays a small but important part as a porter on a Pullman. Downing creates another complex -- and, yes, an exciting and tense! -- plot involving a kidnapping, rumors of a Pullman strike, and the Cristero Rebellion. 

Downing is attentive to the labor of the working classes (waitresses, cooks, and servants as well as the porter and Indigenous people selling food and small items at train stations or by the side of the road), and the Cristero Rebellion is a horrifying but in the U.S. not very well-known part of Mexican history--I don't know  how much the recent Andy Garcia and Eva Longoria film helped!

Yes, then, I would say that he writes very clever mysteries in which he embeds observations about the social and cultural worlds produced by Spanish colonialism, U.S. interventions in Mexico, and the general economic climate of the 1930s.

Murder on the Tropic is also one of my favorite Downing mysteries. Like Vultures in the Sky, Murder on the Tropic has a wonderful and diverse cast of characters, and Downing situates the plot in a precise historical moment: during the construction of the Pan American Highway in Mexico.

Downing is also almost always thinking about the U.S./Mexico border -- especially in The Last Trumpet -- in a way that resonates today. In fact, we should remember that there were mass deportations of Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans in the 1930s, when Downing was publishing these novels. His apparent sympathy for Mexico and Mexican people can be understood in that historical context.

Murder on the Tropic includes a reference to the murder of two young Mexican men in Ardmore, Oklahoma on June 8, 1931.  Downing chose not to take a tour group to Mexico that summer and, apparently, stayed home and started writing Murder on Tour. His career as an author of mystery novels, therefore, appears to have its origins in a real act of fatal racial profiling. This dark side of racial conflict within the U.S. and Mexico and between the two countries is a sub-text that runs throughout his novels.

Ardmore, Oklahoma today

Curt Evans: Yes, I think Downing was rather conflicted about Oklahoma.  In some ways he had a conservative, small-town upbringing and I think some of this “stuck”; yet he was repelled by the Ardmore killings, as you point out, and more generally by the parochialism and anti-intellectualism of Oklahoma in the 1930s.

For a while he did relocate to the Northeast, like his sister had before him, but, as you know, he came back to Atoka and spent the last twenty years of his life there, teaching at Atoka high school and later Southeastern Oklahoma University.  And he was buried beside his parents and maternal grandmother in Atoka, though today there’s no special recognition of him there, which seems a shame.

I too found Vultures in the Sky so evocative of a time and place.  When I was young, my family made several trips—not by train, sadly, but by car—to Mexico City, along a similar route to that described in Vultures.  Reading the novel really took me back.  The way Downing describes those lonely little train stations in the heat and those Indigenous street vendors (I remember the latter so well too), it’s extremely effective.

Edward Powys Mathers ("Torquemada")
All the Rennert novels were published in England and it’s interesting to see that Downing's books got excellent reviews not only in the United States but England as well, with comments from reviewers about how well-written and atmospheric they are.  The critic Edward Powys Mathers, known as “Torquemada” for his fiendish crossword puzzles, wrote that Todd Downing was “a born detective story writer” and compared him to Matthew Arnold, in terms of his technique for revealing hidden aspects of his characters’ personalities.

I’m looking right now at a review of another Downing novel that you praise—and I definitely agree with your praise--Murder on the Tropic.

This review is from a newspaper in Tasmania. 

I think everyone will agree that Mr. Downing is a good writer of good detective stories,” the reviewer starts out, then: “As a well-told crime and detective story I regard this as one of the really masterly ones.  But, as well as the plot and its unraveling, there is a remarkably vivid description of the Mexican landscape.

There’s the double praise again, for the plotting and the purely literary quality.  Yet by the late 1940s, Downing’s novels all are out of print.  They would stay out of print for some sixty years.  Now eight of them are back in print and the ninth will soon follow.

Do you think there’s a chance now that, with the reprinting of Downing’s books and reviews and your own book, Downing's name will become more familiar to people as a writer well worth reading, an entertainer who also has notable things to say in his entertainments?

Dutch edition of The Cat Screams
James Cox: I'm so glad to see you emphasize that Downing had an international reputation. His books were translated into Dutch, Finnish, Italian, and Spanish, at least. An edition of Murder on the Tropic (La Luce Gialla) was in print in Italy as late as 1958, and an edition of Vultures in the Sky (Il Terribile Viaggio) was in print in Italy, too, as late as 1977. So the Italians appear to have appreciated him more than we have!

I once found a copy of Vultures in the Sky in Spanish (Buitres in el Cielo) in Brazil. He made it to Tasmania, apparently, too. I would love to know if his reputation in these other countries endures into the early twenty-first century.

I'm optimistic that Downing will become more well-known. I sure hope so. A major problem was that his books were inaccessible, and the new editions thankfully remedy that issue and make it possible for teachers to assign his books.

Downing's novels have the potential to interest a broad audience that includes general readers as well as scholars of American literature. There is a little something (literary, cultural, historical, borderlands, transnational, American Indian, Mexican, Indigenous Mexican) for everyone in the novels.

Curt Evans: I like your optimistic assessment.  Thank you so much for the interview, Jim. By the way, this blog has a few Italian readers who have read Todd Downing, which bears out your comments.  Let's hope his readership expands all round!

James Cox: Thank you so much again for this chance to talk about Downing!


  1. This is a very interesting interview. I will have to follow up on this author (Downing) and your book. Thanks for posting this interview.

  2. So glad you liked this, TracyK, it took a little time to put together! Thanks (and of course thanks to James Cox).

    I do hope you check out Clues and Corpses and the crime novels of Todd Downing (the latter are now available in Tom Schantz's Rue Morgue catalogue). He was a unique Golden Age mystery writer and critic.

  3. Hi Curtis,

    I'm working with Otto Penzler and hoping to make contact with the estate of Todd Downing. Since you seem to be the leading expert on the author and his work, I wonder if you might be able to assist me in this endeavor. If so, could you please email me at charles[at]mysteriousbookshop[dot]com?

    Thank you!

    Best wishes,

    1. Sure thing, I actually should have the name and addresses of the person you are seeking, although it's been a few years since I communicated with him. I will email you.