Source: Review Copy
This is the second novel I have read by Todd Downing, the other being Murder on Tour (1933) and both feature series’ sleuth US customs agent Hugh Rennert. The Cat Screams (1934) is set in the town of Taxco in Mexico, where seemingly natural, accidental and deaths by suicide are becoming a trend. The majority of these are taking place in Madame Fournier’s pension where there is a quarantine due to a suspected case of small pox. Structurally this is very like an Agatha Christie novel, as the pension contains a set number of people, many of whom with secrets to hide and some not so secret animosities with each other.
There is the stage actress Gwendolyn Noon, who has run away from and broken her engagement to Riddle, who comes from a wealthy family, who of course has also turned up and is steaming mad at another guest, gossip columnist David Shaul, who he believes caused Noon’s change of mind. Riddle’s anger ultimately leads to Shaul becoming unconscious from a punch to the face. Rennert, who is here on holiday, hopes things can smoothed over between them, but this hope vanishes when Mrs Gidding, guest and volunteer nurse, tells him Shaul has died, despite being predicted to recover. But both Gidding and Rennert are not convinced Shaul died of his injuries, with indicators pointing towards suffocation, as the cause of death.
But convincing the authorities is a different matter, though the disappearance of vital evidence doesn’t help, meaning the police would much prefer to accept that Shaul died of his injuries. This version of events is confounded though when another death happens, Riddle’s. The authorities are happy to believe Riddle killed himself out of remorse, but for Rennert this just confirms that there is a killer to track down and within the other guests. Aside from those I have mentioned there is also a Dr Parkyn who is hunting for jade artefacts, there is Mandarich who is an artist and Crenshaw, a man who seems overly familiar with Riddle, yet also claims to have never met him before this trip.
Being contained within a small place takes its’ toll on the inhabitants of Madame Fournier’s and added to the usual strain of a police investigation, there is the Siamese cat, Mura, who has the uncanny ability of screaming shortly before someone dies. It’s therefore no surprise that several characters start to crack, especially as the body count rises. Furthermore, smaller seemingly random events and occurrences also set everyone on edge and make this case more complex, but also provide clues for the overall solution to the case. Rennert’s investigations bring up some interesting information about the other guests such as drug addiction and reveals the unpleasant nature of Shaul and although this information blackens one guest in particular, Downing is adept at spreading the guilt around all of the guests.
This was an enjoyable mystery, set in a convincing and engaging location. Rennert reveals the solution to the crime in a delayed fashion, making the name of the killer a surprise to reader but also increases the suffering of the guilty party who is also listening. The fact Rennert does this deliberately does make it an ethically grey area. Moreover, I think the evidence of the crime is much more fairly shown in the narrative (not that this meant I solve the case or anything), in comparison to Murder on Tour, although I think Rennert could have used direct questioning a bit sooner with some of the witnesses. A similarity I noticed between this novel and Murder on Tour, is the inclusion of a similar character. Both novels contain an older but still attractive woman with a long standing emotional pain. In this novel it is Mrs Gidding, whilst in the first novel it is Mrs Rankin. With both women Rennert is drawn, not particularly sexually, but by their mutual emotional response to Mexico and their comprehension of Mexican culture and ways of thinking and there are moments in both texts where Rennert meets with them on a mental and emotional level. Readers of the Coachwhip reprint will also have the treat of reading the afterword by James H. Cox who examines the complicated and tense relationship between Americans and Native Mexicans in Downing’s novels, amongst other things. So if you haven’t given Todd Downing a try yet then I definitely recommend you do.