Todd Downing? Perhaps other aficionados of classic detective stories will recognize his name, but until recently I had never heard of him. Not even Jacques Barzun and Wendell Taylor in their “Catalogue of Crime” carry an entry on any of his books. And yet — from the evidence of Downing’s mystery criticism, as well as his fiction — he seems to have been just their kind of author: Not just well read and literate, but also devoted to the fair-play puzzle in which the reader can match wits with the detective over who done it and how. What’s more, Downing (1902-1974), an Oklahoman who was part Choctaw, boldly set nearly all his mysteries in Mexico.
Downing’s reappearance is largely owed to Curtis Evans, perhaps our leading champion of what has sometimes been dismissed as the “humdrum” detective fiction of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Readers who enjoy John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie should certainly check out Evans’s blog at The Passing Tramp. (If his Web site seems oddly named, just think back to how often the police in Golden Age mysteries attributed the murder of Sir Henry or Lord Exmoor to “a passing tramp.”) On Friday, for instance, Evans posted a longish column entitled “The Bells and the Bees: Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov Discuss Detective Fiction.” In effect, his site’s archives make up a valuable critical guide for anyone who enjoys “the normal recreation of noble minds,” as the essayist Philip Guedalla once called the reading of detective stories.
In “Clues and Corpses,” Evans provides a 125-page biography of Todd Downing, as well as brief introductions to his eight major books. This is followed by the reprinting of Downing’s complete mystery criticism, essentially his seven years of reviewing for the Daily Oklahoman between 1930 and 1937 and his 1943 essay “Murder is a Rather Serious Business.” Throughout, Evans enhances Downing’s reviews with lengthy footnotes, which identify authors and often add his own informative commentary.
That section of “Clues and Corpses” is the highlight of the book. The biographical introduction may exasperate readers by presenting too much information about Downing’s ancestry and family. Admittedly, some of this is colorful: His grandfather was a bigamist with 17 children. In essence, though, Downing grew up in Atoka, Okla., taught languages at the University of Oklahoma, moved briefly to New York, worked in advertising in Philadelphia and eventually took up teaching again in 1950 for a brief while at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. He spent his last years as an instructor in French and Spanish at Atoka High School while living in his family home. Downing never married, and from the evidence, it seems likely that he was gay. His active literary career was largely confined to the 1930s.
Downing’s newspaper column “Clues and Corpses” allowed him to write regularly about his favorite genre, usually 150 to 350 words (and sometimes more) for each of two or three current books. On March 1, 1931, he discussed “About the Murder of Geraldine Foster,” by Anthony Abbot. It’s somewhat formulaic, Downing says, but “what makes this story remain in the memory . . . is the element of horror which permeates the tale, from the finding of the several dead pigeons to the final revelation of the manner in which Geraldine met her death. The pigeons have died from drinking the blood of the dead girl, but the medical examiner has said that she has been dead only two days, while the pigeons have been dead ten. With this clue as a starting point, [Thatcher] Colt uncovers one of the most fiendish crimes ever committed in fact or fiction.”
This is intriguing on its own, but Evans’s substantial footnote further explains that Anthony Abbot was the pen name of Fulton Oursler — now mainly remembered for his bestseller about the life of Christ, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” — and then goes on to characterize his half-dozen mysteries, all of their titles beginning “About the Murder of . . . ” For the reader, this back and forth between Downing’s reviews and Evans’s historical expertise generates not just synergy but pointers to many forgotten books worth searching out. After Downing praises, with reservations, “Red Warning” by Virgil Markham, Evans’s footnote tells us more about Markham’s eccentric fiction, adding that one mystery fiction blogger named TomCat maintains that Markham’s “Death in the Dusk” (1928) rivals Joel Townsley Rogers’s “The Red Right Hand” (1945) and Fredric Brown’s “Night of the Jabberwock” (1950) “in the race for most outlandish detective story ever contrived.” Already owning the Rogers and Brown, I immediately went searching the Internet for “Death in the Dusk.”
Elsewhere, Downing writes of Edwin Greenwood’s “The Deadly Dowager” (1937) that “Not since Victoria Lincoln’s February Hill , have we spent such a hilarious and altogether mirthful evening as the one we spent getting acquainted with the old Dowager Arabella, Lady Engleton, and watching her insure the lives of her relatives and then start killing them.” I added “The Deadly Dowager” and “February Hill” to my book searches.
When Downing was once asked to name his favorite detective novels, he chose the following: Rufus King’s “Murder by Latitude,” S.S. Van Dine’s “The Greene Murder Case” (or “The Bishop Murder Case”), Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” Mary Roberts Rinehart’s eerie “The Red Lamp,” Anthony Wynne’s “The Silver Scale Mystery” and Mignon G. Eberhart’s “From this Dark Stairway.” As the magazine advertisements used to say: How many of these have you read?
Besides bringing out “Clues and Corpses,” Coachwhip Publications has also reissued Downing’s mysteries. The best of them feature Hugh Rennert, a U.S. customs agent, whose investigations usually take him south of the border. I picked up “Vultures in the Sky” (1935), in which Rennert finds himself and seven other Pullman passengers on a train slowly making its way from San Antonio to Mexico City. During the first night out, a young Mexican is found dead without any sign of foul play. But is it murder? Could those kernels of popcorn be a clue? What about the strange remarks overheard in the dark about “earrings and cuffs” and “don’t forget the extra edition”?
Soon there is another death and still another. Could they somehow be linked to a recent kidnapping in Texas? Or to Mexican civil unrest? What about the revolutionary Cristero group? The passengers themselves are all a bit fishy, especially the sophisticated Coralie Van Syle and the enigmatic Miss Talcott. Though loosely inspired by Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” the result is, as Evans writes, “one of the most gripping closed setting detective novels in the literature of mystery fiction.”
Winter seems to be dragging on forever this year, so there are still long evenings when nothing will do but a good mystery or even some good mystery criticism. You won’t go wrong in giving Todd Downing a try.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
CLUES AND CORPSES
The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing
By Curtis Evans
Coachwhip. 426 pp. Paperback, $21.95
VULTURES IN THE SKY
By Todd Downing
Coachwhip. 246 pp. Paperback, $12.95