The passengers on the train to Mexico City had plenty of reason to be nervous. Times are rough and there is a railway strike in Mexico at the moment. Trains everywhere are being tied up and delayed, and as if that weren’t enough, part of the journey takes the train through a region that has a rather bad reputation. And then there are the vultures flying overhead, like an omen of doom. With all that to deal with, the corpse was most certainly not needed.
But a corpse does pop up in Todd Downing’s Vultures in the Sky, and it is the corpse of a Mexican man. He has died under strange circumstances, which don’t necessarily rule out a natural death but which certainly makes the theory far less tenable than it might otherwise have been. If this is a case of murder, the killer acted swiftly and murdered the man under circumstances where the fellow passengers’ vision was impaired. But the killer didn’t count on one man on board: U.S. Customs Service agent Hugh Rennert.
Todd Downing was a mystery author from the “Golden Age” of the detective story, and as a result Vultures in the Sky (1935) is influenced by many of the trends of the detective novel from the time. This is a mystery in which you’re given all the clues and the author still manages to fool you over the question of whodunit. The story is excellent, and has all the hallmarks of an excellent mystery: red herrings, false trails, a decent-sized cast of suspects, multiple murders, and most important of all, a solution that produces The Homer Simpson Effect— i.e. that moment when the reader slaps himself in the forehead and screams “D’oh!” for not solving the mystery sooner.
At the same time, there’s an excellent human dimension to the story. It has well-defined characters and some of the finest atmosphere I’ve ever come across in a detective story. Downing really gets a sense of menace and danger into the story. There’s a particularly good sequence that comes late in the novel (so please pardon my vagueness). Without revealing too much about the circumstances, the train stops moving and the passengers are stranded in the middle of the desert, with only a few matches between them and a potential murderer running loose. The tension in this sequence is stretched out to an almost unbearable degree, and you can easily picture yourself on board this hell-train, cowering in fear of your life.
I don’t want to say too much about characters because of spoilers, but I really like what Downing did. There’s some real complexity to these characters, and Downing’s views on race are also quite interesting to see in a novel from the 1930s. For instance, at one point Hugh Rennert reads a hackneyed, cliché newspaper article that paints Mexico as a barbaric land where human sacrifice is still practiced and whose inhabitants are little more than savages. He dismisses the article as a dismal failure, and as it turns out, the article’s author agrees with him, having written it while hung over!!!
I don’t really have anything to criticize about Vultures in the Sky. This is a terrific novel and I highly recommend it. It’s one of those small masterpieces from the Golden Age that I love running across, my very favourite kind of mystery. If my review fails to do the book justice, well, I’ll blame TomCat for beating me to the review just as I was getting ready to write it up. But I’ll have my revenge next time when I review Downing’s The Last Trumpet.
Note: Full disclosure: I was given this book in exchange for an honest review. The publisher is Coachwhip Publications. Coachwhip has done a wonderful job yet again with the typesetting, editing, proofreading, etc. and the book itself is lovely, suffering from none of the flaws that some print-on-demand presses are associated with. The binding is sturdy and I absolutely love the cover image. This edition is highly recommended, and you can’t go wrong with Downing’s book. It’s a must-read for Golden Age fans.