It has been quite a while since I last read a novel by Todd Downing, so I was definitely looking forward to today’s read, which is the third mystery novel of seven in Downing’s Hugh Rennert series. Rennert is a United States Customs service agent and most of his adventures take place in Mexico. In his introduction to the Coachwhip reprint of this book, Curtis Evans notes that:
‘Hugh Rennert is fascinated with Mexico and Vacilada, the mirthfully stoic attitude of the country’s people toward life and death; and over the course of the series Todd Downing explores what might be termed the metaphysical relationship of Rennert and Mexico in interesting ways. We learn a lot about both a man and a country.’
Mexican attitudes towards death are definitely at the forefront of this particular Rennert tale, with all the characters getting plenty of opportunities to put such attitudes into practice.
What is the worst thing that can happen on a train journey? Lost luggage? Stuck sitting next to a crying baby? Well these certainly pale in comparison to what the passengers of the Pullman carriage undergo on their journey to Mexico City. To begin with railway strikes immediately add a significant strain and then of course there is the man who dies in the dark whilst the train is going through a tunnel. Despite everyone being in such close quarters little is initially known about how Eduardo Torner died. Rennert though is decidedly suspicious of this, not least because of an earlier conversation he had with a passenger, who said his wife overheard two people talking about the retrieval of money and a threat of creating a blast during the train journey if this doesn’t happen. Added to which the passenger’s wife also thought she heard the words earrings, cuffs and extra edition. But what could they possibly mean?
Of course many of the passengers have something they wish to hide, something they fear will be exposed in any investigation and silence follows a number of Rennert’s questions. Yet as the train journey continues it soon becomes apparent that Torner was neither the first victim, nor the last… Difficulties with the train itself, some accidental and some not so accidental, as darkness begins to fall and matches are far and few between, add enjoyably to the tension and atmosphere of this increasingly claustrophobic mystery. Just when you think the bodies have stopped falling more invariably follow.
In the opening pages the story does feel rather male dominated, but just when you begin to really notice and wonder why the two female characters are so suspiciously silent, one of them, Trescinda Talcott, bluntly intrudes into the narrative, reminding the other male characters of her presence when they are discussing the first murder:
‘Masculine conceit, I suppose, that always leaves the women on the side lines when anything that they consider unpleasant is going on […] Or is it the protective instinct we read so much about?’
Bluntness is certainly a major part of Talcott’s personality and on first appearance she comes across as hard and unemotional, especially when she sees Torner’s body. However, as the book progresses she becomes a much more interesting and complicated character. Some of things she says are far from polite and in these moments you feel like pulling away from her. But then there are other times where her independent streak seems admirable and her sharp observations are greedily consumed by Rennert and the reader.
Rennert himself is in for a hard job with this case, as very early on his sense of who he can trust is badly shaken and he is left to mostly work by himself, receiving the occasional telegram when arriving at various stations. Yet he does have a fellow sleuthing spirit on board, as Talcott has a number of similarities with him. For instance she says to him that:
‘I suppose you, too, look at it more or less abstractly, don’t you? As a problem to be worked out – by formula or by the trial and error method?’
To this Rennert replies that ‘yes, I suppose so, although I try to disguise my interest in the puzzle by telling myself that my desire for justice demands its working.’ This part interested me as it occurred to me that both Rennert and Talcott are both relatively unemotional people in the face of death, but it is because Rennert has an appropriate avenue for his puzzle solving skills, that his unemotional nature receives less criticism. Not that any reader should want to censure either of them, as like them the reader is glued to observing all the characters after Torner’s death and their reactions toward murder and crisis.
Given these similarities I think Talcott would have made for an interesting amateur sleuth. The way her movements and eyes are described recalled to mind descriptions of other fictional sleuths contemporary to the time the story was published. For instance it is said that ‘the brightness of her eyes and certain quick birdlike little movements of her body testified to her interest.’ As many golden age detective fiction readers will know, the sleuth’s eyes always sparkle, especially when they are on to something and the reference to Talcott’s ‘birdlike’ movements reminded me of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley, who is described in a similar way. Moreover, Talcott also has Mrs Bradley’s detached manner when it comes to murder and their investigations which is reflected when Rennert thinks that Talcott ‘is exactly like a spectator at a play, interested not in the actors but in the parts they represent.’ It is therefore a great shame in my opinion that Talcott never truly gets to take such a role in the book itself.
Spoiler! What comes in the next paragraph constitutes a spoiler so for readers who haven’t already read the book I recommend skipping ahead to the final paragraph.
In the background of this story is a kidnapping case of a small boy from a wealthy family, who unfortunately does not get returned alive and the child’s nurse has only been recently released at the start of the story. The fact an investigator from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation was trying to follow a suspect on to this train journey soon suggests to Rennert this is a key part of the mystery. Of course hearing this and knowing that the book is set on a train, which at one point is stuck in the middle of the desert, it is hard to not think of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934). I know Christie’s novel was influenced by the real life kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932, but I am not sure if Downing’s tale is as well. It would surprise me though if it wasn’t. Equally it is known that Downing enjoyed the works of Christie, so I am left wondering if he had read her novel first before writing his own. Although Christie and Downing’s stories have many surface similarities, including their decisions to have their fictional trains halted for a certain amount of time, forcing characters into close quarters, I think the way the kidnapping element is used differs. Christie’s approach feels much more personal and the kidnapping is at the heart of the mystery and the emotional turmoil it inflicts resonates throughout and gives the final solution a lot of impact. However, with Downing’s story you could remove this part of the mystery and it would not be hugely changed and the final solution in fact has a rather different emotional clout.
I am definitely glad that I returned to the work of Downing as 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. Unlike with Christie’s train bound novel Downing does not need snow to cause drama in his plot, using a number of other equally successful tactics, some of which are far from expected. 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. The question of course is to figure out which one is not the red herring. The clues are very clever and sneaky and in some cases quite unusual in nature. All of this provided for a great read and I would strongly recommend others give Downing’s work a go, as Coachwhip have reprinted all of his Rennert novels.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Bird
Murder on Tour (1933)
The Cat Screams (1934)