Originally published 1935
Hugh Rennert #3
Preceded by The Cat Screams
Followed by Murder on the Tropic
The journey of the Mexico City-bound Pullman seems ill-fated from the outset ― what with the engine troubles and the threat of an impending railway strike ― but no one aboard expects the terror that will descend upon the luxury train between Laredo and its destination. First a man dies as the vehicle passes through a dark tunnel and then, just as United States Customs Agent Hugh Rennert begins to investigate, the train comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the desert.
More deaths follow as night falls, and when it becomes clear that a murderer is on the loose, the stationary cars transform into an isolated hall of horrors. The varied and intriguing cast of passengers begins to panic, but Rennert remains calm and collected, untangling the web of motives in a desperate search for the culprit. Will he be able to unmask the killer before the voyage ends?
Todd Downing was unknown to me prior to picking up Curtis Evans’ Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The book discusses Downing’s life and the influences on his writing but at that time I was initially interested in it for its reproductions of the reviews he wrote about detective fiction in the 1930s for The Daily Oklahoman newspaper.
As I read more about Downing’s own biography and unusual background (at least in the context of writers of the Golden Age) I became interested in him as a writer – a feeling only amplified by the reviews I have read written by fellow bloggers. After taking a look over several of his titles I decided to make this one my first for two reasons. Firstly because it features a train journey which could tie in with an upcoming train-related post and also because this book is being reissued in print at the end of the year as part of the American Mystery Classics range. I have used the AMC cover image for this review to match the others on my dedicated page for that range but for the purposes of this review I read the previous Coachwhip edition, limited copies of which are still currently available on Amazon.
Vultures in the Sky takes place aboard a train travelling from Laredo, Texas to Mexico City. During the journey US Customs Agent Hugh Rennert is approached by a passenger who tells him that his wife, who has departed the train, overheard a conversation where one passenger was issuing a cryptic threat to another. A short while later the train passes through a tunnel and the carriage is thrown into complete darkness. When the train emerges the man who had made the threat lies dead though the means is unclear at first. It will take a second death to confirm that a murderer is aboard the train and they are likely to strike again…
The train is a perfect cauldron for resentments and mistrust to grow, particularly given the nature of the barren and unforgiving landscape the train is moving through. There may be a killer aboard but to leave the train would spell likely death from the elements.
Downing’s descriptions of the Mexican landscape are superb, not only evoking a sense of place but also the political tension that was still palpable a decade after the Mexican revolution. This only feeds into the nervous tension already being felt by the passengers and the threat of being interrogated by the local police when they reach their destination serves as a credible motivation for them to cooperate with Rennert’s investigation. As for the train’s staff, they are motivated to keep the train running so it can reach its destination before a staff strike kicks in.
The train is filled with quite an interesting mix of characters, several of whom seem to be hiding secrets. Rennert’s job is to tease out those secrets and discover who might have a connection to the deceased. Even when a passenger seems to be cooperative though there is always a question about whether there is more that is left unsaid or whether they are being entirely truthful.
Rennert makes for a pretty engaging sleuth. Clearly smart and perceptive, he applies pressure to the other passengers with reasoning, making the case for why they should cooperate with him and also getting the train’s staff on his side. His personality never distracts from the case itself and he remains focused on working through the facts logically to tease out an explanation.
While typically mystery novels begin with their most interesting murder, Vultures in the Sky‘s murder only seem to grow in interest. That partly reflects that it takes a while for us to get definite confirmation of murder but also because the seeming acceleration in killings adds a sense of pressure and tension to the affair.
Tension continues to build as our cast of suspects begins to thin out and there are several external factors at play that only add to the pressure. One of these, referenced in the blurb above, is that the train suddenly stops in the middle of the desert. This adds a sense of dread that something is about to happen, once again drawing on some aspects of what was happening in Mexico at the time, but it also adds pressure for the killer who is trapped aboard a train with a detective who is edging towards the truth.
This and several other external factors have an impact on the investigation, only serving to increase the tension and setting up an exciting conclusion to the story. I felt that conclusion lived up to my hopes, being not only a compelling resolution to the mystery but also quite thrilling in its application of pressure, not letting up until the final few pages. Downing answered all of the questions I had and delivered a killer I didn’t see coming.
Overall my first experience of Downing was a really positive one. I loved his attention to building a sense of place and his careful puzzle plotting and I look forward to reading more by him in the future.
The Verdict: A triumph of setting and style – Downing’s story has a clever plot and accelerates towards a thrilling conclusion.
Do you have a favorite Todd Downing novel?