Vultures In The Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

The train journey from Monterrey to Mexico City was always going to have risks. Mexico in the 1930s was not a peaceful place with a constant threat of uprising and revolution. Nobody expected the danger to strike inside the luxury Pullman train though…

As the train goes dark inside a tunnel, the returning light reveals a passenger lying dead from unknown causes. US Customs Agent Hugh Rennert starts to investigate – another man apparently collapsed on the platform before the train departed – but before he can find out anything, the train grinds to a halt.

Trapped on the train with his fellow passengers and a murderer as night begins to fall, Rennert will have to find the murderer before their work is done.

Todd Downing wrote nine detective novels between 1933 to 1941, of which this is the third. Most of his titles are set, I believe, in Mexico, and most feature High Rennert. This one was recently released in the American Mystery Classics range. Some of his other books have been reissued by Coachwhip and Wildside Press over the years, but he is not an easy author to get hold of, at least not affordably, apart from this one. So is this going to inspire a reader to start a Downing collection?

This is a very atmospheric book. Downing’s descriptive prowess is clearly a strength, whether it is the description of the physical locale or the atmosphere of the train car. What might have helped was a little more description or a diagram of the train car, as I’m not an expert on Pullman carriages but as it seems to have sleeping quarters, a restaurant and a seated area and I got a little lost on the geography at times.

That element is quite important as the mystery revolves basically on who could be where at what time to kill whom, as there isn’t an awful lot in the way of physical clues. Downing does an interesting thing with introducing the suspects as he maintains descriptions of them until Rennert finds out their names (some of which take a short while to do). Having said that, he could have made a few of the suspects a little more distinctive, as reading it piecemeal as I did, I found that I had trouble recalling who was who and had done what. Other the other hand, some of the other suspects have fascinating and moving stories – swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

I didn’t mind that too much though, as this is an absorbing read written in an interesting voice. There are some very interesting characters here, an insight into a place and period that I know little about. The tension grows effectively and there’s a healthy body count for the more bloodthirsty reader.

I’d like to read something else by Downing. The quality of writing and the view of 1930s Mexico is enough to bring me back, although I’d prefer something a little more clued than this. Or at least with a picture of the crime scene.

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