Out came the matador,
Who must have been potted or
Slightly insane, but who looked rather bored.
Then the picadors of course,
Each one on his horse,
I shouted “Olé” ev’ry time one was gored.
The moment had come,
I swallowed my gum,
We knew there’d be blood on the sand pretty soon.
The crowd held its breath,
Hoping that death
Would brighten an otherwise dull afternoon.
– Tom Lehrer, “In Old Mexico”
Speaking of dull afternoons, it’s surprising just how dull one spent with Todd Downing can be. And The Last Trumpet is a siesta of a book.
The guy was a gay, part-Choctaw, fan of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie, who set his detective stories in Mexico. But he wasn’t a lively writer; he had no apparent sense of humor; his storytelling meanders; and his plot construction is loose. (Carr and Christie’s books were tight – and so was JDC himself!)
To his credit, the basic premise is good. Someone is removing the witnesses to a railway crash—but why were all the victims left-handed? And why did the crimes take place at Christmas? This is a classic Ellery Queen set-up: what is the hidden pattern? Downing plays fair; the solution is based on a proper “ladder of clues”.
So he obviously had some idea of what to put in a detective story.
Only little idea of how to tell it.
Halfway down the first page, Downing gives us this beauty. “The echo took a long, long time to die in the crooked shimmer of heat which rose from the arena toward the hard blue sky and the dazzling white clouds wandering in from the Gulf of Mexico.”
That sentence, reader, is a brick wall. You back out of your driveway, you turn into the street, you start to accelerate – and collide with three sentences jammed into one, without a comma in sight.
You pick yourself up, feeling slightly shaken, but no bones broken.
And then the prose turns purple.
“It rang in the girl’s ears, and she thought: It’s a tiny live thing that wants to escape, but can’t! She had a momentary nightmarish sensation of being trapped there too – in an inverted glass bowl which was lined by tier upon tier of dark, strange faces and clamped down tightly upon a round floor of yellow sand. Sand that was furrowed deeply and splotched by damp red stains.”
Clunkety-clunk goes Downing’s prose. Elsewhere, the writing is flaccid – although I doubt Downing was when he wrote this:
“The Spanish say that the heart of a bullfight crowd is a woman’s heart, captivated by color and pomp and more than all else by blatant maleness. Campos must have known this, for he moved his legs so that the sunlight played upon his tights and loins and revealed the rippling of the muscles under the tight trousers. The amphitheater grew still again, filled with the orgiastic tremor of heavy breathing and hot, tense bodies perspiring under the sun.”
Campos the tight-trousered matador is about to become shish kebab – penetrated by that most potent and masculine of creatures, a bull. It doesn’t take Krafft-Ebbing or Havelock Ellis to spot a subtext.
It’s astonishing how gay this book is. In 1937. A sadistic cripple is in a curious relationship with his blond Viking right-hand man. The cripple describes how he saw the Viking whip a peon:
“What a lusty young stallion he was that morning! Standing stiff-legged and solid in flaring riding-breeches, brand new-boots and polished spurs. It was dank and cool in that adobe room. But his face gleamed with sweat. For he had been working hard and long. One whip had come to pieces during the preliminaries. He was giving himself a few capricious moments with the left hand as he got the feel of a new one. Exploring with the beaded tip and testing his knowledge of anatomy—”
Hugh Rennert, Downing’s detective, flirts with his partner, Sheriff Peter Bounty: “I’d like to have you in either event. You’re a bachelor, too, aren’t you?”
And he solves the case by checking out his partner’s muscled, blue serge-clad ass.
On another note, as early as 1937, characters say that solar heat will replace fossil fuels. Downing mentions C.G. Abbott’s demonstration of a ½ hp solar-powered engine at an International Power Conference in Washington, D.C. in 1936. Nearly eighty years later, and we’re still largely reliant on oil, coal and gas.