Flying Crows: A Novel

Flying Crows: A Novel

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by Jim Lehrer

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BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Jim Lehrer's Tension City.

With Flying Crows, veteran newsman and bestselling author Jim Lehrer has written his most powerful novel, a work that moves masterfully from past to present and back again to solve the mystery that is American mayhem.

In 1997, police discover an old


BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Jim Lehrer's Tension City.

With Flying Crows, veteran newsman and bestselling author Jim Lehrer has written his most powerful novel, a work that moves masterfully from past to present and back again to solve the mystery that is American mayhem.

In 1997, police discover an old homeless man in the Kansas City train station. “Birdie Carlucci” claims he has lived there since 1933, hiding out in the storeroom of a Harvey House restaurant. Kansas City cop Lieutenant Randy Benton decides to discover the truth behind Birdie’ s tale—and finds himself on a ride that leads ever backward into our country’s bloodstained past.

Benton’s investigation reveals the story of young Birdie, incarcerated in a brutal insane asylum where the preferred method of treatment is beating with a baseball bat. In that hopeless environment, though, he’s befriended by another patient, Josh Lancaster, once dismissed as a lost cause but snatched back from the brink by a compassionate doctor. But what is the secret of Lancaster’s involvement in an infamous Civil War encounter between Confederate bushwhackers and Union soldiers? And what truly happened after Birdie escaped from the asylum on the famous Flying Crow train?

As Benton returns to the present day, he wonders: How much, if any of it, really took place? What were the true public and private traumas of these two troubled men who can’t forget what they’ve seen or merely imagined?

Inspired by real events, Flying Crows is a novel that moves as inexorably as a train in the night to a shattering conclusion—one that reveals the many meanings of imprisonment and escape, and all the eccentricities and tragedies of the American soul.

Editorial Reviews

Les Roberts
Even though its epic scope spans all but a few years of the 20th century, Jim Lehrer's latest book, Flying Crows, is the almost painfully intimate story of a young man and a much older one who, for a brief time, were co-inmates at the Missouri State Hospital for the Insane at Somerset. This is the 14th novel for Lehrer, best known for anchoring the nightly "NewsHour" on PBS, and it's full of scenes and images that will stay with you long after you've finished reading.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
A Kansas City police detective tries to untangle the curious pasts of two asylum patients in this touching novel about lost souls, loneliness and life's small triumphs. Lt. Randy Benton, assigned to make the final sweep of the city's long-shuttered Union Station before restoration work begins, finds an aging hermit, alive and well in a concealed room that used to be a restaurant pantry in the old railroad terminal. The hermit, Birdie Carlucci, says he's been living at the station since 1933. A railroad buff himself, Benton is stirred by Birdie's tale of "a great life" at the station as well as intrigued by the old man's account of escaping more than 60 years ago from a nearby insane asylum with a friend, Josh. Benton, working in his spare time, begins piecing together the story of the two men, a search that takes him deep into the golden age of rail travel as well as the unnerving history of the treatment of the mentally ill in the early years of the century. Both Josh and Birdie, it turns out, witnessed awful tragedies as young boys, traumas so disturbing that they wound up in the asylum, where they were routinely hit with baseball bats and threatened with electric shock therapy as well as lobotomy. Their stay served as the basis for a bond that gave each a reason to live-and escape. Shifting narrators as well as settings between 1933 and 1997, Lehrer's 14th novel is an expertly researched, warmly told tale, rich in suspense and drama. The PBS newscaster (No Certain Rest) has crafted a highly personal story, quiet in tone and scope, yet booming in emotional intensity. 11-city author tour. (May 18) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The prolific author (No Certain Rest, 2002, etc.) and PBS anchor takes two lunatic asylum inmates for protagonists in his quirky latest. The Somerset asylum in Missouri is a nightmarish snake pit: the attendants subdue the patients with baseball bats, and the doctors covet their charges' brains for research. In 1918, a humane physician, Will Mitchell, saves the life of Josh-mute by day, a screamer at night-and later effects a cure by having him talk about his special interest, the Centralia massacre of Union soldiers in 1864. For reasons we don't learn until later, Josh can't be released, but in 1933 he takes under his wing a new inmate, Birdie, fresh from witnessing the Union Station massacre in Kansas City. The young man is quick to mimic Josh's former symptoms, and after Birdie is caught in the library stacks with a female volunteer, Josh helps him escape. The two men catch the Flying Crow to Union Station, which dazzles Josh with its splendor. He has pressing reasons to return to Somerset, but Birdie, though loath to lose his protector, will live at the station for 64 years before being rousted from his hideaway by a Kansas City cop, Randy Benton. The narrative jumps around among 1918, 1933, and 1997 as Randy unravels the mystery of Birdie and Josh. Lehrer's 14th outing is powered by barely compatible interests: two historical massacres, the inhumane treatment of mental patients, and the era when railroads were king and stations were palaces. The lurid details of asylum life and the massacres overshadow Birdie and Josh, while the author's keen nostalgia for the glory days of railroading assorts well with neither. Though Josh and his double-layered secret are accounted for, Birdieremains an enigma, an attractive, adventurous young man with possible Mob connections (we don't know for sure) who grows deaf to everything save the siren song of Union Station. A disjointed oddity, well below Lehrer's best work. Author tour
From the Publisher
“[A] touching novel about lost souls, loneliness, and life’s small triumphs . . . Lehrer’s 14th novel is an expertly researched, warmly told tale, rich in suspense and drama. . . . A highly personal story, quiet in tone and scope, yet booming in emotional intensity.”
—Publishers Weekly

From the Hardcover edition.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1




A private security firm had already done a search of the vast, mostly deserted Union Station building. But the contractor's insurance company, in consultation with the city manager's office, insisted that there be one final, thorough inspection supervised by the Kansas City Police Department. They wanted to make absolutely sure there was nothing on the premises-particularly no person or animal, dead or alive-that could, through legal action or other means, impede the important restoration work that was about to begin.

That was why Lieutenant Randy Benton and Luke Williams, a newly hired uniformed guard for the Union Station Rebirth Corporation, found a living person named Birdie.

That happened because of Randy's curiosity. He was a forty-five-year-old detective in the KCPD's Violent Crimes Division who had volunteered to be one of the twenty-five officers involved in the daylong sweep. Randy came from a Missouri Pacific family, his father having been a railroad policeman and his grandfather a brakeman in the yards at Winston, Missouri. As a kid, Randy's idea of heaven was to go to Union Station on Saturdays and Sundays to watch the trains and have a root beer float at the Harvey House soda fountain.

Here now was a wide full-length mirror hanging a few inches off the floor in what must have once been the Harvey House's storeroom or pantry. There was a dark wooden frame around the cracked and yellowed glass of the mirror. Even though scratched and dusty, he realized from its ornate, detailed etching of Roman soldiers on horses and elegantly dressed women in carriages that the piece was many years old, a special item-an antique-probably worth quite a lot.

Why would an expensive piece like this be hanging in a restaurant storeroom?

He tried to push the mirror to one side. It wouldn't move. He noticed two or three small hinges along the left side of the frame, so he grabbed the right side. The mirror swung easily away from the wall, like a door.

There behind the mirror was another door, also closed, slightly smaller than the mirror.

The real door, made of cracked and gray wood, had a white porcelain knob. Benton put an ear to the wooden panel. After a few seconds, he grabbed his pistol from its holster and motioned for Luke Williams to stand back. Williams was a former airport rent-a-car shuttle-bus driver in his late twenties, and this was his first law-enforcement episode. Instead of moving, he froze.

"I hear something," Randy whispered. He gave Williams another nod to move. This time, Williams did.

Randy shouted into the door, "Is anyone in there? This is the police! Kansas City PD!"

He waited and listened for a count of five. On ten, Randy turned the knob and pushed. The door opened easily.

"Please . . . don't hurt me . . . please. . . ."

It was the faint, weak, slow voice of a man.

Randy spotted somebody in the corner of a room that, without the light from his and Williams's flashlights, would have been pitch black. To Randy's hampered view, the place appeared to be no larger than a small closet, windowless and cluttered with stacks of books, newspapers, and other items hard to identify in the semidarkness. Randy also caught the smell of a burnt candle plus a faint whiff of cinnamon or nutmeg-some kind of spice.

There was a man sitting on the floor, his shaking hands held over the top of his head as if braced for a blow.

The detective stuck his pistol back in the holster. Then he and Williams, each grabbing an arm, lifted the feeble creature to his feet. He was as tall as Randy, almost six feet, but light as cotton. They guided him outside into the larger storeroom.

The man was elderly, well into his seventies, at least, Randy guessed. His face was partly obscured by wild growths of white hair and was bony and drawn, as was what could be seen of his fingers and arms. He was wearing a blue workshirt and a pair of black flannel pants that were wrinkled and filthy. The garments, to Randy, had an otherworld look.

"What are you doing in here-in Union Station?" Randy asked, as they leaned the man against a wall.

"This . . . is . . . where . . . I . . . live." The man spoke precisely as if he were just learning to speak, though his voice was cracking.

"Nobody lives in a train station," Williams said.

"What's your name?" Randy asked.


"Birdie what?"

"Birdie. . . . Just Birdie."

"What's your last name?" Williams asked.

"Birdie . . . just Birdie. . . . Carlucci . . . right, Carlucci. . . . Name's Birdie Carlucci."

"OK, Carlucci," said Williams. "Where you from?"

"I'm an . . . escaped . . . lunatic."

Randy gave Williams a wave. I will handle the rest of the questioning, said the signal. "What did you escape from, Mr. Carlucci?"

"The . . . Somerset . . . asylum."

"How did you get here?"

"I came . . . with Josh . . . on . . . The Flying . . . Crow." Birdie Carlucci began to slip down the side of the wall; he seemed not to have the strength to remain standing. Randy knew all about The Flying Crow. It was a streamlined passenger train of the Kansas City Southern that had gone out of business at least thirty years ago.

Randy and Williams helped the old man to sit down with his back leaning against the wall, his legs folded underneath him.

Randy crouched down to be at eye level. In twenty-one years as a cop, the detective had learned to read eyes. Birdie Carlucci's set of black ones spoke only of fear, not danger.

"Who's Josh?" Randy asked quietly.

"He's . . . my friend . . . from Centralia."

"My aunt's a librarian in Langley, not far from Centralia." Randy looked back toward the door to the smaller room. "Where's Josh now?"

"Josh . . . loves books. So do I . . . now. He . . . spent all his time . . . in the library . . . at Somerset. He's . . . cured."

"Cured of what?"

"Of . . . seeing something awful."

"When did you and Josh come here to Union Station, Mr. Carlucci?"

"Sixty-three . . . years . . . ago."

Randy exchanged a few more words with Birdie Carlucci on the slow walk up the stairs to the grand lobby, which was no longer grand at all. It was a sad, depressing mess. On the floor were puddles of water and clumps of plaster that had fallen from the once-beautiful ceiling. There was an ugly empty space where the ticket offices with their brass grilled windows had been. The paint on the walls was peeling, cracked, and dirty.

Randy badly wanted to believe the promise from city and restoration project leaders that they were going to bring this place back to life in all its former glory.

"Where are you from originally, Mr. Carlucci?" Randy asked, as he moved through the lobby alongside the shuffling, frail old man.

"Here . . . Kansas City . . . really." Birdie was still talking in fragments, but deliberately now.

"You didn't live in that little room down there for sixty-three years, did you?" Randy asked.

"No . . . no. At first . . . I moved around . . . staying different . . .

places . . . each night or two."

"What kinds of different places?"

"The waiting room . . . baggage rooms . . . down at a train shed . . . offices, stores . . . all over. This is a big, big building."

"How did you live?"

"It was . . . a great life."

Two uniformed KCPD officers met them in front of what Randy knew had been the newsstand under the huge clock, which was still hanging there. The clock wasn't running and the shop was boarded up with plywood.

Randy and Williams, the private cop, walked with Carlucci and the two officers out to a police squad car parked in the driveway in front of the large east doors.

Birdie Carlucci suddenly stopped and looked around at the few cars parked outside beyond the driveway.

"I was here. I saw it . . . but don't ask me anything. I'm not . . . going to tell you . . . anything. I know you want to hear about . . . Pretty Boy . . . and Righetti. I won't talk."

Pretty Boy. Righetti. Randy Benton knew the names from history but most recently from Put 'Em Up!, a new book he had just read about the famous Union Station massacre. Kansas City's best-known crime writer, Jules Perkins, had retold the story of how four lawmen and a prisoner were shot and killed-right here in front of the train station-early one morning in 1933. Pretty Boy Floyd, a well-known bank robber from Oklahoma, and his drunken sidekick, Adam Righetti, were identified as being two of the gunmen and were caught a year later in Ohio. Floyd was shot and killed; Righetti was taken alive and brought back to Missouri, tried, and electrocuted for murder. But according to Perkins's book, it's unlikely that Floyd or Righetti had anything to do with what happened at Union Station. Perkins maintained it was mostly an invention by J. Edgar Hoover to get publicity and power for his federal law enforcement organization, soon to be renamed the FBI.

"Back then, did you tell anybody what you saw?" Randy asked Carlucci, playing along rather than asking seriously.

The old man closed his eyes and shook his head.

One of the two uniformed officers moved to stand by the opened back door of the squad car. Randy and the other officer grabbed each side of Birdie to ease him into the rear seat.

Randy had seen terror on many faces in the line of duty. From what he saw now in the eyes and demeanor of Birdie Carlucci, he knew this man was truly afraid.

"Don't want . . . to go . . . back. Not now," he said, trying in vain to raise his voice to a shout. His whole body was trembling, as it had been earlier when they found him in the storeroom closet.

"Back where?" Randy asked.

"To Somerset . . . the asylum."

"Somerset's been closed down for years, Mr. Carlucci. They don't even have places like that anymore. These officers will take you to our police station for processing, and then you'll be turned over to somebody in the social services division. You'll be fine."

"Will . . . you tell Josh . . . where I am?"

"Certainly, Mr. Carlucci. What's his last name? Josh what?"

"Don't . . . know. He saw . . . the Centralia massacre."

Randy had only a vague notion of what had happened at Centralia. Some Union soldiers had been pulled off a train by a band of Confederate guerrillas. They were ordered to strip and then killed.

Randy told the two KCPD officers to treat Birdie Carlucci gently during the ride and the processing.

"Make sure nobody hurts him," Randy said.

And in a few moments, Birdie Carlucci was gone.

Randy wasn't sure he believed the old man's tale of living in Union Station for sixty-three years, much less about having witnessed the Union Station massacre. None of it sounded plausible. But as he watched the blue-and-white squad car make the loop in front of the station and go on out to Pershing Road, he knew he had to find out. Curiosity was Randy's stock-in-trade, both his chief strength and his weakness. He had trouble letting go.

Within a few minutes, back inside Union Station to continue his search, his curiosity about the old man began to subside. Randy told himself that Birdie Carlucci was probably just another mentally disturbed homeless guy who had gone off his medicine. Whatever, the case would soon no longer be the business of the police anyhow.

Too bad, thought Randy. There was something intriguing about the old man.

And very likable.





Josh had been rocking in the common room for nearly ninety minutes when they hustled somebody in who smelled like bad meat and sat him down in the chair on his left.

"Hey, Josh, here's a new one named Birdie," said Alonzo, a bushwhacker who smelled like Ivory, the soap that floats. "Teach him how to rock the loonies away."

Bushwhacker was what everyone here at the Missouri State Asylum for the Insane at Somerset called the attendants. Somebody had used the name several years ago as a kind of pejorative joke, but it caught on and was now part of the accepted language. Josh knew about the original bushwhackers, barbaric bands of Confederate guerrillas who preyed on Union soldiers and sympathizers during the Civil War. Their worst crime, of course, was committed in Centralia on a group of Union soldiers. He was an expert on that.

Josh said nothing but continued to move his rocker forward and back, as he did most every afternoon around this time. He didn't even think much of anything except how stupid it was to have everybody rocking like this every day. Nothing ever got rocked away.

"See you later, Birdie," said Alonzo. "Watch Josh and see how he rocks. Rock, rock, rock, Birdie. Rock, rock, rock."

Josh kept rocking, his eyes focused on the buzz haircut of Streamliner, the man in the chair directly in front of him.

Without looking, Josh knew Alonzo was gone but this new guy, Birdie, wasn't rocking. The chair on his left-it was only ten inches away-was not moving. Most of the others in the room were rocking. He could hear the low sounds-bump . . . ta, bump . . . ta, bump . . . ta, bump . . . ta-on the wooden floor. Forward, bump . . . and back, ta. How many people in how many rocking chairs were lined up in this big room of gray walls, doors, and ceilings? One day he counted as far as seventy-seven. Another day he stopped counting at eighty-two. The chairs, all dark pine exactly like his, and the people, all lunatics, were lined up in straight rows eight across like soldiers. Or schoolchildren. Or sticks.

Lawrence of Sedalia, four rows down and to the left, was one of a few who never rocked. Josh had never seen Lawrence's chair actually move. Lawrence always just sat there during rocking time, still as one of those statues of Civil War soldiers on a courthouse square. The only time Lawrence moved was when he took off his clothes, which, he said, drove him crazy. The bushwhackers used to make him put his clothes back on, but lately they'd begun to leave him mostly naked. Sometimes they got him to sweep the floors with one of their big brooms. Sweeping was the other routine thing to do around here. Josh never noticed that anything was swept away either.

Josh looked to his left, at the new loony. He's just a kid, he thought. Not even twenty. Sitting there rigid as a tree. Black hair. Bright white skin. Moist, greasy. Needs a shave. But good features in the face. Dressed in blue work clothes-the patients' uniform-but stinking like moldy green hamburger meat. They should have bathed him-hosed him down or thrown him in a hydrotherapy tub or something-before putting him in those clean clothes.

His eyes were wide open.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

This is JIM LEHRER’s fourteenth novel. He is the executive editor/anchor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and lives in Washington, D.C. He and his novelist wife, Kate, have three daughters.

Brief Biography

Washington, D.C.
Date of Birth:
May 19, 1934
Place of Birth:
Wichita, Kansas
A.A., Victoria College; B.J., University of Missouri, 1956

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Flying Crows 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Saint John the Divine is given a little scroll which tastes just like honey in his mouth, but turns bitter once digested, in his bowels. This contemporary fiction of a lunatic asylum in the midwest,drinks like fine scotch from a 30 year old keg.Brings to mind the urgent desire of modern Americans to divest themselves in their waning years of the trifles and burdens of material world. What is left in this game of cards,is Gods' last trump card, and a well crafted deliverance at the poker table as The Allmighty plays out his final hand against the devil. A hilarious romp into post modern consumer age,and the humor only a divine creator could reserve for his intimates.Mr. Lehrer is truly blessed with an eye for the profane and sacrosanct, and it shows in his writing. Long after the dose of bitterness has worn off, the virtues of this remedy for todays extremities in everything from entertainment to survival stay with the fortunate folks ,lucky enough to have chosen to read this obsure title from one of Americas most amiable News Anchors.For me it was like sitting around the hearth listening to dad recite a christmas carol on the Eve of All Saints.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My life began when I was nine. Now, this may seem unusual to you, but I've gotten used to the fact that I can't remember anything up to my ninth birthday. I don't honestly know if I want to remember. Because if I believe anything, I believe that the part of my life I can't recall probably sucked. My family? More like my enemy. I have one older brother, Mitchell. He's an all A's student, been on honor roll since before I was born, whenever that was. He's a senior, star of the football team and headed off to Harvard next year. Not to mention, he has a line of girls just waiting for him to dump his present girlfriend, which is often. Me? Not so much. I've gotten straight B's for the life I can remember, except on one rare occasion in science. That was in fifth grade, when I made the best model volcano my teacher'd ever seen. Quite an accomplishment for me. Matter of fact, it's my only accomplishment. My parents, anyway, worship Mitchell. To them, he should be president of the world, and then some. But they treat me like dirt, not to mention they're duller than static on a TV. Call me complaining, but they hardly even celebrated the first birthday I remember. The first thing that stuck to my empty mind was the one clear balloon, the obviously homemade and home iced vanilla cupcake (I hate vanilla) and the single, tiny present resting on the table, which I soon learned consisted of a 1994 penny. Whoopee. Meanwhile, for Mitchell's sixteenth birthday, he got my parents to cave into getting him a Cadillac and renting out an entire resteraunt for the party. Heck, we're not even that rich. Summary of my life: woke up with no memory during my ninth birthday party. Parents act like I'm going to become a terrorist. Brother's just plain a butt. I have no real friends, since I'm what most people call, "nuts in the head". And it's not like I'd argue with them. I…do things. Unexplainable things. The reason I got an A on my volcano? It oozed real lava. I touched it, and I'm pretty sure I got a third-degree burn. I didn't go to the ER, though, because when my teacher dipped a finger in it, she was absolutly fine. Not a scorch on her. This is just an example. Too many things have caught fire, melted, or exploded around me for me to remember. Back to the summary. I come home every night to dwell in the absolute horroribleness of my life while my parents compare me to Mitchell over the bland dinner my dad cooks up. I shoot him glares, he shoots me sneers. I'd retire to my broomcloset of a room for the night, with nothing to comfort me but the hope that tommarrow will be better. That has been the routine for four long years. I am now thirteen, in seventh grade, and nothing has changed. Until one fateful day… My name is Jennifer Gordan, and this is my story. Next parts will be longer. Guarentee!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago