Source: Review Copy
I was excited to read this book, having never heard of Todd Downing until I received this book from Coachwhip Publications. He was an American writer and university teacher born in Oklahoma and began his career in the 1930s with this very book. This and many others are set in Mexico, where he lived and taught and his knowledge of Mexican culture and history is evident in this novel. His detective fiction writing career was only a short one, with his last novel in 1941. Like a number of writers, he seems to have decided to move on to others things. This novel is split in to three parts, the action moving between San Antonio in Texas and Mexico City.
Set in San Antonio, the story begins with a bang when a John Payne, a US customs agent is found strangled in his hotel room with black stockings. Although, Inspector Haynes Miles is assigned the case, senior customs agent Rennert, is going to be doing the leg work, namely infiltrating the Inter-America Tour Party, which is now in Mexico City. It seems that Payne was working on a historical artefacts smuggling case and believed that the head of the criminal organisation was within this tourist party.
The Inter-America Tour Party is run by a Dr Lipscomb head, who is quite incredulous that anyone of his party could be a killer, having apparently investigated them all thoroughly before letting them join the tour. Rennert is convinced otherwise, especially since an Inter-America Tour Party luggage tag is found under Payne’s body. There are 13 guests of various ages and professions such as Stephen and Henrietta Willis, the sentences of the latter always being finished by other people; Sarah Tredkin, a more elderly and religious person; Francis Tancel, a younger man who knows more about Mexico than he appears to and is the main attraction for Miss Dean and Miss McCool, who are both teachers and lean slightly towards the Bright Young Things from the 1920s (though not so much that it becomes annoying). James Brody is another member of the group and is the familiar figure of the ranch owner, whose has struck oil and therefore gold and is liberal with his money. Professor Bymaster is working on a book on underdeveloped resources in supposedly “backward” countries such as Mexico and China. The final guests are Edward and Mary Earp who are on their honeymoon, Colonel Enloe, Priscilla Rankin and Ricardo Argudin who is awfully keen on bridge, but is not a favourite with the younger women of the group. The group dynamics and characterisation strongly reminded me of Christie’s novels which are set on holidays or trips such as Death on the Nile (1937), Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Murder in Mesopotamia (1936).
Posing as a new guest in the tourist party, Rennert in a way reminiscent of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, uses the power of conversation to try and elicit details about the night of the murder, whilst taking in the sites of Mexico and Downing’s knowledge shows itself well in his choice of locations and the succinct information he gives about them, including the Xochimilco, the Popocateptl, the Pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacan and the Ixtaccihuatl. The fact that the national Festival for the Dead, ‘La Fiesta de los Muertos,’ is taking place at the same time as the murder investigation also adds to the atmosphere. However, I think Rennert could take lessons from Miss Marple, as his conversations yield very little in the way of clues and the only clues from this section
comes from the room searches Rennert does and during the Murder game Miss Dean suggests they play, based on the actual events of Payne’s murder. Ironically, Miss Dean elects Rennert as the detective within the game. Nevertheless the net of suspicion is still very wide at this point and one wonders how Rennert will ever solve the case or whether his investigation will be permanently shortened….
The investigation takes a much more direct approach as the party take the train back home and one wonders why this approach wasn’t done sooner. As they are all placed under arrest until the killer is identified (which has to happen before the train reaches its’ destination), some take it more positively than others, declaring their intention to become amateur sleuths, emphasising all the secret knowledge they have on others… But when someone’s scarf goes missing, the reader is left racing to the end of the story to see if history will repeat itself and whether the killer will ever be unmasked.
Rennert is an interesting detective, though I think Downing tries to make him too balanced as a character. My first impressions of Rennert were that he was unemotional
and very matter of fact and his behaviour adhered to this throughout the novel mostly. However, there are points where Downing seems to want to make Rennert a more emotional person, describing him as ‘sentimental,’ especially when it comes to sunrises and nature and Mexico. I’m not sure these moments fit with Rennert very well and I think they may be Downing’s own feelings towards Mexico being imposed on the character. Having said this, these Moments are very minor so don’t ruin the reading experience.
The revelation scene at the end of the story, where a trick is employed to reveal to the reader and confirm to other characters the truth concerning Payne’s murder, reminded me of Christie again, especially of course Murder on the Orient Express, where there is a train revelation scene. The choice of killer is a really good one, as even when the clues started flowing in (many of which are red herrings), I still didn’t expect it. However, this is probably because it was not a fair play mystery (see Invisible Event’s recent post on this phenomena), as the contents of packages and telegrams are withheld from the reader. Normally this would really annoy me but I didn’t mind this time round as the narrative style is really good and the fast pace and short chapters make it a quick read, which hooks you into reading just a few more pages (even when you’re supposed to be doing something else). The story is that good that even the slightly off key comical ending didn’t bug me the way it would have done in a poorer book. Overall, I wouldn’t say this book is perfect, but a bit like Christie, the story and writing is so good, that it is easy to overlook the imperfections.