Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Cat Screams by Todd Downing

Todd Downing (1902-1974) published nine detective novels between 1933 and 1941 before abruptly abandoning writing altogether. Most of his books were set in Mexico; his series detective is U. S. Customs Agent Hugh Rennert. See more about Downing on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, See also Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing by Curtis Evans, preface by Bill Pronzini (Coachwhip Publications, 2013).

His second book The Cat Screams (Doubleday, 1934) was hailed by his publisher as a major literary occasion and it was featured as a Crime Club Book of the Month, unusual for a relatively unknown author.

Agent Hugh Rennert is on vacation, traveling via train to a resort in Mexico. He notices a young man on the train with him, who turns out to be the only son of a wealthy oil man on his way to the same resort to find an actress that he is determined to marry. His conservative father does not want an actress in the family, yet the son plans to marry her anyway. They stay at the same hotel, where the owner has a Siamese cat in heat that yowls at all hours. Other residents include the actress, a blackmailer, and a private detective sent by the conservative father to investigate the actress. It is not a happy group, even less so when one of the staff is suspected of having smallpox and the entire building is quarantined.

Almost immediately after Rennert’s arrival the deaths of visiting North Americans begin. The local police are anxious to write them off as suicides so as not to jeopardize the tourist revenue so important to the town but Rennert has his well-founded doubts. Rennert takes advantage of the police chief’s lack of English to interrogate the various hotel residents, who in my opinion were far more patient with what could be considered his interference than I would have been.

I did not find this story a scintillating read. I put it down about a third through and waited a couple of weeks to see if that would help. It didn’t. The plot moved slowly in places and rushed in others, and I thought some of the story was a little too fantastic. I am happy to have made Downing’s acquaintance, however I am not in a hurry to delve further into his works.

One final note: those people smoked a lot. A LOT! I wanted to cough just reading about everyone lighting one cigarette from the end of another. I understand that was typical of the time and place but things have certainly changed.

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