Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Detective Novels of Todd Downing

This is another deviation from my blog preamble – am doing something today which I’ve never done so far – that is to feature a post on the detective novel(s) rather than a short story or short story collection! This year, I’ve taken a lot of breaks in my pursuit of the short story to devote valuable time to some of the longer versions of the Golden Age of Detective fiction. In this regard, the latest detour took me on a path to read all the novels by Todd Downing back to back after being impressed by Vultures in the Sky which I read sometime last year after seeing a review of this book by Curtis Evans on his blog. It was a great pleasure to lay my hand on these Coachwhip reprints and read them. The stories in most of these books are set in Mexico and come in as a breath of fresh air amongst the myriad miasma of novels from the Golden Age of detective fiction. Having a customs agent as a detective protagonist is not only an ingenious idea but it serves as a wonderful framework to base his plots on. These books certainly stand out for their plots, atmosphere, fair-play clueing and the blending of the Mexican landscape and its legends (in a very superior way) in to the structure of the plot. The modern readers certainly owe their thanks to Curt and Coachwhip publications for bringing these titles back from oblivion. What follows below are my observations on all the 9 detective novels penned by Todd Downing in the order that I read them rather than the order in which they were published.

 Vultures in the Sky
Any mystery set on a train or a ship or a plane goes up to the very top of my To Be Read list immediately. And that is how I ended up reading this third mystery offering from Todd Downing as soon as I saw the review from Curtis Evans on his blog. It’s a terrific performance – the setting, the atmosphere and the chilling suspense that the author builds up to ratchet the tension is amazing. Arriving at the murderer wasn’t too difficult – it’s fairly clued and at the end with only 3 suspects surviving, it’s not much of a mystery as to whodunit but the way you get there is really one hell of a ride with 2 very memorable scenes. This book is right up there with the 2 books that I rank so highly in this category (mysteries set on trains) – Murder On The Orient Express & Obelists Enroute.
Murder On Tour
Senior Customs Agent Hugh Rennert travels with a party of American tourists to identify a killer whose first victim has been a customs agent. There could be more as they wait for the macabre Mexican holiday “Day of The Dead”. There are far too many suspects – handling 13 suspects in just 180 odd pages does not give the author much scope for fleshing out the characters. It’s fairly clued alright - one clue requires the reader to know the history of a particular event and the other clues are weak but the intention is there to play fair with the reader. The climax is on a train with Hugh Rennert grilling the suspects for one final time before he hands over the guilty party to the US authorities after crossing the border from Mexico. Blending of the mystery novel with an exotic location and a touring group exploring these locales of Mexico is the best part of this book. A good debut to the series.
Murder on the Tropics
The task for Rennert is to find out who is stealing water bottles and to buy back the shares from an old woman but he ends up unmasking a very clever multiple murderer. This one has a better plot with 8 interesting characters stranded in a lonely Hacienda in the middle of nowhere with no human habitation for miles. The blending of one of the Mexican superstitions of “Yellow Death” and the atmospheric tension (with a hurricane heading toward the hacienda adding to the tension) is handled meticulously to provide the reader with a good puzzle. Fairly clued and it’s not much of a problem to figure out the culprit before the detective.
Murder Under The Moonflower
The first Peter Bounty mystery. It has a very interesting premise – why would anyone want to murder all the blood donors when the person who is supposed to receive the blood transfusion doesn’t have an heir to whom the inheritance will be passed? If I’ve to just provide in one word the biggest problem I’ve with this book is that it is loquacious. On top of this, all the three deaths are caused not by the devious cleverness of the criminal but by the stupidity of the Sheriff’s department (each time a different individual) which is a bit of a drag. The last two deaths were totally unnecessary. It’s fairly clued though and I knew who the murderer was but I went hopelessly wrong with the motive. This book would have worked better had it ended 50 pages earlier but that doesn’t mean in any way that I didn’t enjoy reading this one.
The Case of the Unconquered Sisters
This is a daring attempt to have just three suspects (if we can take the word of the US authority that the Sisters family is in the clear) and yet aim to pull off a surprising conclusion to a well rounded mystery but the problem lies in the execution. The Sisters (2 sisters and a niece) have been hosting an archaeological group who are conducting an expedition in the black lava fields of Mexico’s Pedregal. Rennert is sent to this house to investigate the disappearance of one of the members of this expedition whose skeleton (with a gunshot hole in its skull) has turned up in a consignment headed to a US museum along with 2 other prehistoric skeletons. With very few suspects, there aren’t too many plot threads to juggle around with and being a small book, looks like the author was constricted to use his clues because when the two major events or clues does appear, it becomes too obvious as to who the culprit is and ends in a disappointing finish.
The Lazy Lawrence Murders
The final installment from this very entertaining author takes place on a train – the third time in as many as 9 novels – inspired by Rufus King’s 3 novels all set on a yatch or a ship as pointed out by Curt in Clues & Corpses. But it’s really nowhere close to the performance which we see in Vultures. An ex-Texas Governor is travelling in a Pullman with two of his family members and his secretary. When the Governor meets a violent death just minutes after Peter Bounty boards the train, he has a number of suspects to contend with including a Mexican police officer and a US customs official. The book takes a long time in eliminating one suspect after another and like its predecessor (Moonflower), it is wordy. But this one’s merit is that it hides the murderer in a much better way compared to some of his earlier novels.
The Last Trumpet
All the previous plots involved the closed group of suspects - enclosed in a stranded house or an enclosed space like a train. This is his first book which breaks away from this tradition and what you have here is a murder committed inside a bull ring arena in front of thousands of witnesses. By the end we have a total of 4 (or was it 5?) deaths – the only thing common to all of them being that the victims were all supposed to testify in a court against an insurance company so that a crippled man who met an accident continues to receive his monthly compensation. But the irony is that it was not mandatory for any of them to testify. The author is at the top of his form here and it would take a very careful reading to pinpoint the murderer – though I knew the answer to the other plot strand which is so crucial to the solution, I just couldn’t decide between two of the suspects and I finally had my answer just before the beginning of the final chapter. Also, I was helped by a spoiler from a comment which Peter Bounty makes in one of the novels. So I would suggest others to read it before they read the Bounty titles even though the spoiler is a trivial one and the reader wouldn’t realize it till the end of the book. All in all a wonderful effort and certainly one of his best books!
Night Over Mexico
Rennert takes a detour and takes shelter in a stranded house when the weather turns bad. There are 9 others who have more or less ended up in the house for the same reason and the caretaker of the house is already dead when Rennert makes his entry. 2 more mysterious deaths follow – with Rennert finding no sign of foul play on any of the bodies. It includes a very strange motive and a strange murder weapon but the reader may find it hard to figure them out even though it’s abundantly clued. It has a terrific start, a lame finish and a very interesting plot in between.
The Cat Screams
This is Downing’s second book and this is certainly an improvement over the first one. Rennert is on vacation in one of the hotels in an exotic location. There are 7 more guests, a servant who is suffering from some unknown ailment due to which the house is put under quarantine and a Cat which brings about a death every time its guests get to hear its scream! A terrific set up, interesting interplay between the guests, a well hidden motive all make for a breezy read. However as a whole it left me with mixed feelings: the murderer did come as a pleasant surprise (kudos to the author on this one) but the clues are so subtle and so indirect that it was hard for me to pinpoint the motive or the culprit, simple things which people would do under these circumstances are not seen here and some of the things which looked strange to me remained unexplained in the end and hence my equivocal stance on this where I was neither too thrilled nor was I too disappointed (to deem it as an average effort).
To conclude, it’s been a fascinating few weeks spent with these novels. All the novels are certainly worth reading with my nomination for the top 2 going towards Vultures in the Sky & The Last Trumpet. And I’ve no doubts in agreeing with Curt that Todd Downing is a far superior author to the average mystery writer.


  1. Hi Arun, very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on these books. Glad you enjoyed the series overall, it's that which makes it worthwhile bringing these books back in print!

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