George Todd Downing, Oklahoma’s first successful writer of detective novels, was born at Atoka, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), on March 29, 1902. His paternal grandmother, Millissa Armstrong, part of the 1830 Choctaw migration from Mississippi, was George T. Downing’s second wife. Their son, Samuel, Todd’s father, born in the Choctaw Nation in 1872, served in Troop M of the Rough Riders. He married Maude Miller in 1899. Todd Downing graduated from high school in Atoka in 1919. As a student at the University of Oklahoma he studied languages and earned Phi Beta Kappa membership. During the summer he also studied Spanish, French, and anthropology at the National University of Mexico. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1924 and 1928, respectively. His master’s thesis received third prize for a thesis in Spanish from La Prensa, a New York newspaper. The work was directed by Roy Temple House, founder of the literary magazine Books Abroad (now titled World Literature Today).
In his early career Downing taught at the University of Oklahoma as an instructor. He became associated with Books Abroad with its first issue, January 1927, and wrote reviews for the magazine throughout his student career. He was also prolific reviewer of mystery novels and nonfiction books on both Spanish and French subjects, especially Central and South America, for the Daily Oklahoman. Professor Kenneth C. Kaufman, coeditor of Books Abroad, also edited the Oklahoman book page from 1932 until 1945.
Downing supplemented his income by leading summer tours to Mexico, and he wrote his first novel, Murder on Tour, when a trip was canceled after an international incident. The story utilized his experience as a guide and introduced Downing’s series character, Hugh Rennert, a U.S. Treasury agent, who appeared in six more books. A dramatization of Murder on Tour was reported to be the most popular of many radio plays performed on the university’s station, WNAD. Downing lectured on “Characterization in the Radio Play” at a radio writing conference on campus in December 1934. Downing’s second novel, The Cat Screams (1934), was his first to be published in England. It was also translated into Swedish, German, and Italian. Cat was presented in a dramatization at New York’s Martin Beck Theater in June 1942. A 1945 reprint of the work was the last publication of any of Downing’s novels.
Although he claimed he did not keep up with murders reported in the newspapers, his plots reflect contemporary concerns. The Mexican railway strike serves as a subtext along with the suspicion of a kidnapping in Vultures in the Sky (1935). The building of the Pan American Highway is used as a plot device in Murder on the Tropic (1935) as well as in Night Over Mexico (1939). A history lesson is presented in the background of The Case of the Unconquered Sisters (1936). The story takes place at the boarding house of two daughters of Confederates who migrated to Mexico rather than recognize the surrender. The sisters hold forth socially as murders occur around their house.
Downing lectured on the mystery novel several times at the University of Oklahoma, beginning at a summer forum in June 1933 with the lecture “That Blunt Implement.” He lectured on “The Mystery Story” as part of a university series in February 1934. In July 1938 he became the first writer to talk on the mystery genre in the University of Oklahoma Summer Short Course on Professional Writing. His essay “Murder Is a Rather Serious Business” was anthologized in 1945.
When Downing returned to teach in Atoka, the editor of the local newspaper, Indian Citizen, suggested that he write a series on the Choctaw language. Called “Chata Anampa,” meaning Choctaw tongue or language, the series presented ten lessons mixing Choctaw heritage with language instruction. He briefly returned to an academic environment as professor emeritus of Choctaw language and heritage at Southeastern State College (now Southeastern Oklahoma State University), Durant, in 1971–73. His text was refined as Chahta Anampa, An Introduction to Choctaw Grammar and published in 1971 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for use in the Choctaw Bilingual Education Program at Southeastern State College and at Vanderbilt University, as well as for adult education programs in the Choctaw Nation area of Oklahoma.
Near the end of his life Downing wrote Journey’s End, a history pageant presented by the Atoka County Historical Society. When the pageant was performed May 1, 1971, he was the narrator. Todd Downing died at the Atoka Memorial Hospital on January 9, 1974. In 1996 the University of Oklahoma Press released a new edition of his 1940 nonfiction book The Mexican Earth, expanded with bibliography, index, and foreword by Wolfgang Hochbruck. (Source: Frank Parman, “Downing, George Todd,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=DO013)
Bibliography: Murder on Tour (1933), The Cat Screams (1934), Vultures in the Sky (1935), Murder on the Tropic (1935), The Case of the Unconquered Sisters (1936), The Last Trumpet (1937), Night Over Mexico (1938), Death Under the Moonflower (1939) and The Lazy Lawrence Murders (1941).
Though all the titles have been released at Coachwhip Publication, I understand that some titles are difficult to find. Penzler Publishers has scheduled to launch a new edition of Vultures in the Sky on 1 December 2020.
Further reading: Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (Coachwhip Publications, 2013) by Curtis Evans. The book is an important addition to our knowledge, not just of an unfairly neglected writer but of the whole mystery scene in a misunderstood and often mischaracterized decade. Bill Pronzini provides a preface and is credited as a consultant on the annotations. (Mystery Scene Magazine)
Nicholas Blake wrote: On Vultures in the Sky: “I have not read The Cat Screams, but if it is as good as Mr. Downing’s new book it is very good indeed. He has that command of tempo without which a detection writer can never rise into the first class. He avoids the American tendency to overwrite the trivial, yet he can write up to the dramatic situation when it comes. He has the sotto-voce, ungesticulating way of leading one up to the edge of a precipice which makes a walk with Dr. M. R. James so deliciously uncomfortable…….This book puts him into the Van Dine–Ellery Queen class: I do not expect to read a better detective novel for a long time.” (Source: The Passing Tramp)
Curt Evans’ articles on Todd Downing are at The Passing Tramp.
Kate Jackson’s articles on Todd Downing are at Cross-Examining Crime.
Articles on Todd Downing at Mystery File.
(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC. Doubleday The Crime Club (USA), 1935)
Book Description: To the passengers on the ill-fated train journey from Laredo to Mexico City the vultures (zopilotes) in the sky are harbingers of menace. That menace soon takes shape in the form of a most unwanted passenger, Death, who strikes with impunity, again and again. Who will survive this terror-filled trip to its end? U. S. Customs Service agent (and amateur detective) Hugh Rennert tries to derail Death before Death derails him. Like its immediate predecessor, The Cat Screams, Vultures in the Sky was chosen as a Crime Club Selection of the month by Todd Downing’s American publisher, Doubleday, Doran, when it was originally published in 1935. By turns viscerally thrilling and emotionally affecting, Vultures in the Sky also is a fairly clued tale of detection that will keep you guessing-and leave you gasping. Hop on board-if you dare-and see why the English crime fiction critic Edward Powys Mathers (“Torqeumada”) pronounced that Vultures in the Sky amply confirmed his suspicion that “Mr. Downing is a born detective story writer.” (Source: Amazon)