“What began as a pleasure or business trip for most of us has turned unfortunately into an unpleasant and serious affair. I think the time has come for all of us to put aside our circumlocutions and acknowledge openly the fact that one of us in this car is a murderer.”
All of the passengers on the train to Mexico City are on edge. Maybe it’s the heat, or the vultures, or the railroad strike that has left their train the last one on the tracks. Treasury agent Hugh Rennert’s unease begins when he is approached by another traveler who overheard a strange conversation on the platform: “I’ll get off with you at Monterrey and you can get the money. If you don’t, I’ll blast the train on this trip […] Earrings and cuffs. Don’t forget the special edition.”
Then a tunnel plunges the train car into darkness. When they emerge into the light, one of the passengers lies dead.
Vultures in the Sky is a first-rate railway mystery set apart by its tense, unsettled atmosphere. Todd Downing takes fullest advantage of the claustrophobic setting of the train car. Rennert is jittery because he can’t initially confirm whether the death was murder or natural causes. He has no choice but to investigate a murder that may not even have taken place, as the passengers turn on each other and Rennert himself becomes increasingly unsure of his role. Due to the strike, the train can’t stop for long in any location, nor does anyone have the option of leaving the train without being stranded. Occasional telegrams are their only contact with the police. The timetables that head each chapter mercilessly tick away the hours, a reminder that the train is bearing a killer toward freedom, or more victims toward their deaths, unless Rennert can crack the case.
The victim is a Mexican man, Eduardo Torner, who seems to have no connection to the American suspects. All of them have their secrets, which slowly unfurl in the heat of the day. Though Downing uses them in his own way, there are a few elements reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express: a famous criminal case, a berth that was booked but never used.
The most arresting character is Trescinda Talcott, a middle-aged woman who has made her home in Mexico for decades and feels she has absorbed the fundamental outlook of the country. Miss Talcott is a fascinatingly complex figure. At times, she seems utterly heartless about the death in their midst. She claims to represent the Mexican attitude toward death, a less tragic, more pragmatic way of experiencing it.
“But surely you cannot mean what you say? You cannot be so callous in the presence of death?”
She laughed, with a singular lack of mirth. “No? What would you have me do—get as excited as the rest of you because a man has died?” Her eyes went to the window.
The train’s speed had slackened and close to the tracks an occasional low, flat-roofed building was to be seen. Beyond these impudent evidences of man’s intrusion the barren terrain rose and fell until it merged with the barren, shadow-flecked mountains.
“While you are here wrangling over this man—who he was and how he died—the mountains of Mexico are passing by that window and you are not seeing them.”
Yet there is a great deal of the ugly American in her claims that she “knows how to get things done in Mexico,” with her expertise being based on stereotypes and assumptions about Mexicans. She has a brusque, know-it-all manner in general, but it’s strongly suggested that she behaves this way in part because of the difficulty of being taken seriously as a woman. Her behavior is sometimes off-putting, but just as often bold and clever. I wanted to know even more about her than this story reveals. Miss Talcott is almost too big of a character to be confined by her supporting role here; she could easily carry a book of her own.
In the previous two entries in the series, Rennert platonically befriended women in complicated situations. Here, he is drawn to Miss Talcott in a similar way, but cannot miss the fact that she is wearing distinctive earrings and cuffs. More than once on this train, Rennert has trusted the wrong person. He has learned that it pays to be wary with this group.
As the vultures circle overhead, the train hurtles through the desert with its cargo of corpses and killers. Along the way, Downing crafts a scene of heart-stopping suspense that leads to a unique, and hauntingly effective, ending. Even those passengers who reach Mexico City alive will never be the same. Vultures in the Sky is a fascinating detective story with a knockout ending that will affect the reader just as strongly as it does Rennert.
At times one feels one is reading an Edgar Wallace thriller; yet Downing, though a self-professed admirer of Wallace, manages to keep Vultures tethered to true detection. In this respect Vultures is a great deal like the novels of John Dickson Carr, another writer Downing greatly admired. In other words, Vultures manages, like so many of Carr’s miraculous works, to be both viscerally exciting and ratiocinative, an uncommon feat indeed.
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.
Vultures in the Sky is available in paperback from Coachwhip