The Mexicans call them zopilotes; in English they are turkey vultures - giant birds that feast primarily on the dead flesh of other animals. Certainly, it cannot be a harbinger of anything good when they are seen flying over a train making its way from Monterrey to Mexico City. It is enough to make the passengers extremely nervous. And that was before the murders really began.
That's the situation we find in a marvelous, largely forgotten book called Vultures in the Sky, by Todd Downing. First published in 1935, at the heart of the American Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it features Downing's series detective, U. S. Customs Service agent Hugh Rennert, who finds himself on this nightmare of a train journey, trapped with a murderer who seems to be killing off the other first-class passengers pretty much at will. Vultures in the Sky is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
There is a great deal going on aboard - and around - the little train, making its way across Mexico. Hugh Rennert must try to determine why (and how) some of the passengers are being murdered. At the same time, there is an ominous sense that there is a much broader and deadlier danger looming. There is talk of a general strike by Pullman Company workers (the first-class passengers are all traveling in the Pullman cars of the train), possible sabotage and - as the train breaks down more than once along its journey - the possibility exists of some kind of assault against the train. There may also be a connection to a recent spectacular and deadly kidnapping case. And, all the time, above the train, the vultures are flying, perhaps attracted by the smell of death...
Downing juggles all these plot threads admirably, keeping the reader guessing - although it is most definitely a "fair-play" mystery, with clues that, when properly deciphered, can lead the reader to the correct solution.
Long out-of-print, Todd Downing's novels are back in trade paperback editions from Coachwhip Publications. These editions feature a new introduction by mystery scholar Curtis Evans, providing excellent and fascinating background information about Downing and his books, particularly his use of Mexico as the setting for the books, which Evans says "is his most significant contribution to the genre." In addition, Downing's fascinating characters and the brooding atmosphere which hovers over the book rather like the vultures themselves make Vultures in the Sky a book that should not be missed.
This book is my seventh entry in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge at the My Reader's Block blog. I am entering it in the category, "World Traveler": one mystery set in any country except the US or Britain. If you haven't checked out some of the first-rate books showing up in this challenge, use the link in this paragraph to see what you're missing.