Murder on Tour (1933) by Todd Downing

Todd Downing Murder on Tour Cover

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

Their last day in Mexico City. Day after tomorrow they would cross the border. Inspector Miles would be there waiting for them, with handcuffs. He must then point to one of these people with whom he had been associated for the past few days and say: ‘This person is guilty.’ There must be no doubt, no lack of proof.

And who was this person?

The life of a U.S. Customs agent can be hazardous, but John Payne never expected to be strangled to death with a silk stocking in his hotel room. Payne was on the trail of a smuggler believed to be traveling between Mexico and the United States as a member of an ordinary tour group. Now, Agent Hugh Rennert must join the tour undercover to solve the crime.

There’s nothing very earth-shaking about this setup. Nonetheless, I find myself looking back on the book fondly. Hugh Rennert is not a flashy character; he’s a quiet professional in the Inspector French mode.  He comes across as a real, rather introverted, person who doesn’t let his emotions distract him from the job at hand, despite enormous pressure to solve the crime quickly. He knows that when the tour ends, the suspects will disperse, taking with them any hope of arresting Payne’s killer.

Todd Downing Murder on Tour CoverMost of the cluing is fairly subtle—the reader is left to observe Rennert’s findings and draw their own conclusions. Unfortunately, the key information leading to the solution is so heavy-handed that it actually seemed more like a red herring. Then it was sprung as a surprise revelation at the end. I was shocked, all right, but not in the way the author intended!

Agent Rennert’s greatest passion is for Mexico, and even without Curtis Evans’ useful introduction in the Coachwhip reprint, it would be obvious that Todd Downing shared that passion. Unlike many mysteries with “exotic” settings, Murder on Tour genuinely conveys the unique atmosphere of Mexico, along with respect for its Mexican Rail Travel Posterpeople and traditions. It’s ironic that Rennert, one of the impostors of the tour group, is the one of the few who appreciates their destination. His fellow travelers have come to Mexico for profit, for nostalgia, for romance, but not necessarily for the country itself.

With thirteen tourists and the guide, it’s a large cast to keep track of, and I must admit I didn’t always manage it. Some characters barely appear and are quickly forgotten. Others are more vivid, like boisterous young schoolteacher Miss Dean, who eventually reveals a more thoughtful side.

Another character emerges briefly to create a beautiful and poignant interlude. On the Day of the Dead, Rennert shares a cab with one of the forgotten characters, an elderly widow whose mysterious appointment intrigues him.

“He had lived long here in Mexico,” Mrs. Rankin’s straight back did not relax its rigid poise, “and knew and loved her people. He used to say that here the veil between the living and the dead is thinner than in other places. He believed many of the strange old stories one hears down here. I used to listen to him without voicing my disbelief. In time, I began to wonder—about things. These people are so calm in their confidence. Once he said that if one of us died before the other, we would have a tryst in this house on the Night of the Dead. Where we had lived together. I thought at the time that he was joking. Now I do not know…

“Once a year, on the Night of the Dead, I come back here, sleep in his bed. He has not yet come back, but I feel somehow,” a street lamp shone on her tightly clenched, black-gloved hands, “that each time he is nearer to me. Each year I hope that he will come. Perhaps, I tell myself, it will be tonight.”

One might expect a detective story to take advantage of the morbid aspects of Día de Los Muertos, letting suspects menace each other in a spooky setting. Instead, Downing illuminates the true nature of the holiday through the contrast between Mrs. Rankin, wistfully remembering a loved one, and Hugh Rennert, haunted by the violent death of a stranger. This lovely moment between two people has nothing to do with the mystery, but I will remember it for a long time.

Second Opinion:

Crossexamining Crime

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…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…


Long out of print, Todd Downing’s complete mystery novels are now available from Coachwhip Publications

4 thoughts on “Murder on Tour (1933) by Todd Downing

  1. You’ve piqued my interest! Definitely going to track this down and read it to see what the twist in revelation is!


    1. You absolutely should. It’s like a summer vacation in book form.

      I wouldn’t say there’s a big twist, exactly, but it is a major clue that the detective totally missed. It did make me feel very smart, though–I never solve the crime before the detective!


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