Bulls Like Death

Out cameDowning Last Trumpet 2 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. SomeoDowning Last Trumpet.jpgne 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 wrbullfighting.jpgote 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.

No Hay

If this were a tour, I’d be asking for my money back!

I was hoping for a murder mystery that took me through Mexico, from Mexico City down Downing Murder on Tour.jpgthrough Oaxaca, Puebla, Palenque, Campeche, Merida, and Playa del Carmen, to Chichen Itza.

One wonders what Todd Downing’s real life tours were like.

He takes us to Mexico City – and shows us its hotels. Xochimilco chalupa.jpgSure, we go to a few of the main sights – the Alameda, Teotihuacan and Sanborn’s – but when he goes to Xochimilco, he doesn’t describe what the “flower-decked chalupa” looks like.

It’s telling that although the story is set around the famous Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), he doesn’t describe the parade. This is the same parade that you would have seen in the trailer for the latest James Bond film, SPECTRE, and which inspired the computer game Grim Fandango.

Day of the dead.jpg

Hugh Rennert, Downing’s bland customs agent detective, only joins the “guests” at the end of the tour. One of them strangled a Customs agent in San Antonio, Texas. When the other guests go to Cuernavaca and Taxco, Rennert stays in the hotel to search their rooms. As another guest says, “You missed the most wonderful trip, dearie!”

There are no important Mexican characters. The only Mexicans with speaking parts are a police chief (in only one chapter) and unnamed hotel staff, while the only Spanish character is the enigmatic, dishonest Argudin.

Anyone expecting the immediacy of Gerald Durrell or Ian Fleming will be sorely disappointed. Downing doesn’t convey a sense of Mexico in the ’30s the way Gladys Mitchell did Greece or Agatha Christie did Egypt or Jordan – let alone Graham Greene or Tennessee Williams.

We get facts about Mexico, but little sense of Mexico itself. What did Mexico City smell like? What does the food taste like? What about the light, the heat, the colors, the Mexico poster 2.jpggreenery, the flowers, the crowds? More concrete sensory detail, please, Mr Downing!

And what a waste! This is Mexico! A country where the Aztecs, the Olmecs, the Toltecs and the Maya once lived! A country whose capital is one of the biggest cities in the world – with museums, temples, and cathedrals! In the 1930s alone, National Geographic ran articles on Mexico City as North America’s oldest metropolis (1930); an archaeological dig that unearthed Zapotec and Mixtec artefacts (1932); ChapultTezcatlipoca.jpgepec Park, and a journey by donkey through Mexico disguised as peasants (1934); the flying Otomi Indians, the Aztec Empire (1937); the Maya Empire, and the Rio Coatlicue.jpgGrande (1939).

Then there’s the Mexico of sensational fiction. Think of the opportunities a detective story writer could have with Mexico! Victims stabbed with obsidian sacrificial knives; pyramids with blood running down the stairs from the altar; a victim found dead in front of the polished mirror of Tezcatlipoca; archaeologists killed off one by one by the curse of Coatlicue…

Any of these would have been fertile material for a detective story.

Downing gives us a US Customs agent strangled with a pair of black silk stockings in a hotel in San Antonio, Texas, USA, and an undercover man out to catch the murderer.

It’s pleasing that Downing is against the appropriation by other countries of Mexico’s archaeological heritage.

However, he shoots himself in the foot from the start. Since Rennert is undercover, he can’t detect. He has to pretend to be a tourist, and can only ask questions in normal conversation. There is no in-depth investigation of the crime scenes, as there are in Carr or Queen. Nevertheless, Downing plays fair. The solution is hardly earth-shattering; it lacks ingenuity and inspiration, but the clues are there throughout the novel – and those listed on p. 179 I really should have spotted.

Still, this is Downing’s first novel. The Cat Screams, Vultures in the Sky and The Last Trumpet are supposed to be excellent.