#906: Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

Vultures in the Sky

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Of the multitudinous ways that Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing is boring, perhaps the most irritating is the incessant padding between plot points that drags out discoveries or turn the Lantern of Suspicion upon someone so palpably innocent of any blame that you have to wonder if the author thought anyone would be paying attention. Eight people on the last train through Mexico before a workers’ strike hits should be a real cauldron of a setting, full of slow-building tension and — if clever misdirection among the tiny cast cannot be achieved — at least some doubt as to who the killer might be. It’s almost impressive how Downing fails on both counts.

I feel like this book exemplifies the difficulties the American style detective novel had in adopting the principles of the British detective novel during the genre’s Golden Age. Early on in this — following the inexplicable death of one passenger while the train was shrouded in darkness passing through a long tunnel — it seems that Downing might be writing a very deliberately mannered inverted mystery of a type: one character is clearly in possession of the means by which the murder was achieved, and it would be fair for an element of cat-and-mouse to be anticipated between them and Treasury agent Hugh Rennert who happens to be on board.

That, however, fails to transpire. Instead, it turns out that every character will have One Suspicious Thing about them and while some, like the revelation dropped at the end of chapter IV, are interesting, others are simply justification for dodgy behaviour…and the one character about whom there’s nothing especially shifty is so obviously the killer that a more obvious Victim No.2 should be nigh impossible to imagine. Alas, Downing seems intent on avoiding any development that might steer the plot towards intrigue, so instead the plot ambles on disinterestedly, never really sure what to do until even Downing’s patience seems tested and another murder results. Several murders follow, the motive behind which is again established fairly early on, and one can only imagine that Rennert will lose his professional standing before the next book in this series for allowing so obvious a malefactor to slaughter so indiscriminately without detection.

I’ve still enjoyed a great many of the books in which I deduced the murderer early on, however. The shortcoming here is not so much that the democratisation of suspicion is absent — there are plenty of reasons for people to behave oddly, and for Rennert to field their evasive answers and non-committal responses — but that so little of it actually ties into the murders. Say what you like about the role of coincidence in so many British mysteries relying on the density of odd behaviour piling up at Lady Feltonhoovier’s house party when Lord Michael is found impaled on a croquet mallet in the koi pond, most authors managed to find a way to make the suspicious types necessarily part of the wider picture being drawn. Yes, they leaned into tropes, but the plots would overlap in a way that seemed related when reviewed but could separate out into distinct threads when explained. For all her faults as a writer of interesting investigative phases, Ngaio Marsh is superb at imbricating reasons for the disparate ploys often at play in her books.

Downing buries any such careful plotting by having chapter XIII — entitled ‘Alibi’ — consist mainly of people making unverifiable statements about their locations, including claims about the locations of others, that ends up being impossible to follow. And, as it happens, you don’t even need to read it: the upshot is that everyone claims to have been somewhere else and to have seen at least three other people while there, and then the testimony of these people sometimes even fails to reinforce that claim…rendering the entire exercise pointless. Then everyone searches each other’s person and luggage and nothing is found. Then a man is Suspicious about a Suspicious Message that Rennert has received and thus completely clears himself from consideration as the killer. Rinse and repeat, add in a few deaths, see if you can summon the will to give a damn.

Downing writes some occasionally affecting prose — the porter going out into the stillness of the night when the train is forced to stop in the middle of the Mexican desert just to make some noise as a way of pushing back his personal sense of encroaching dread, say — and includes some moments that are almost accidental in their brilliance (the first body being covered by a sheet, which the porter “tuck[s] in at the edges with as much unconcern as if he had been making a berth”), but the net result of these glittering delights is to highlight how much drudgery surrounds them. The actions of the passengers round the time of that murder are restated four times in the first half of the book, and, while I love a taut description of a hostile landscape as much as the next man, so much time is spent staring at the bland desert it made my eyes hurt.

I could go on — I have difficulty reconciling the increasingly sympathetic characterisation of the elderly (?) Miss Talcott with her early assurance that the way to buy anything in Mexico is to “[find] some Indian who was hungry to who wanted to get drunk” so that you can offer a knock-down price — but you get the idea. One late revelation about how our killer was so easily able to make their way about in the dark is quite clever, but it feels like that might have been the nugget around which this entire leaden enterprise was constructed and, well, that’s not really enough. A failed or frustrated endeavour is often referred to as “a swing and a miss”, and my abiding memory here is going to be how much Downing keeps swingin’ and keeps missin’.

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See also

Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: 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.

Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: I loved this story. It has a strong emphasis on time as each chapter has a specific starting time, which I think adds to the pace of the story as well as its tension … The claustrophobic atmosphere of the train is well created and Downing effectively conveys the increasing fear and anxiety of the train passengers. There are a number of narrative threads connected to the passengers and the secrets they are hiding, but Downing meshes them together really well, creating more than one red herring.

14 thoughts on “#906: Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

    • I, uh, never said they did. But if one wanted to broadly differentiate between the British school and the American school then the Brits of this era generally went in more for clues and detection and the US typically went for suspense. Downing is definitely ding the latter here, and trying to fold in elements of the former to — I’d suggest — patchy ends.

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  1. I, too, bought the Coachwhip edition a few years back and didn’t get on with it. It’s good of you to post positive reviews, making me think I should give it another try . . . one of these days.

    With their origin way back in the pulps, American writers gained a distinction for novels featuring tough guy P.I.s, heavier in violence and suspense than a puzzle. Because even Hammet and McDonald write puzzle mysteries. But the U.S. did produce plenty of puzzle writers, both top drawer (Carr, Van Dine, Queen, Stout) and “second tier” (Palmer, Scarlett, Taylor). I’m not sure they were ever advertised as “written in the British tradition.” I don’t know enough about Todd Downing to know if he was trying to write like these men or was after something different, like,say, Norman Berrow, whose style was all over the place.

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  2. Thanks JJ for the review. I’ve read most of Downing’s Rennert novels, and I’m not sure I can put my finger on what I enjoy about them. Not all of them work well as puzzle mysteries, but the best of them are compelling and atmospheric. “Vultures” was the first I read, and I recall feeling underwhelmed at the end.

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    • I can’t say I’m thrilled by the prospect of more Downing, but I got some recommendations on Facebook that I’ll keep an eye out for. At some point I’ll convince myself that my memory is wrong and/or my judgement faulty and give him another go. For now, though, other books and other authors to explore.

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