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“There’s a train you want to catch in Sheldon Russell’s terrific historical crime novel THE INSANE TRAIN. … [Protagonist] Hook [Runyon] sets the rugged-but-sensitive tone of this outstanding series, which delivers thrilling action, great scenery and a full cast of complex characters searching for peace in a troubled postwar environment.”--New York Times
"The story unfolds with the stark clarity of a Clint Eastwood movie, underscored with rough, laconic humor and driven by strong characterizations and a powerful sense of time and place. The insights into railroad life and the treatment of the insane...flesh out the suspenseful storyline, as does the low-key romance between Hook, a complex man with an unexpected passion for collecting rare books, and a lonely, dedicated young nurse. Fresh and original, it's easily one of the best mysteries of the year."--Denver Post "This atmospheric historical crime novel is a thrilling ride." --San Francisco Chronicle
"Russell's acute sense of the historical elevates "The Insane Train." Russell excels at sharp dialogue and believable characters. "The Insane Train" chugs along at a brisk pace as it skillfully depicts a slice of American history."--Florida Sun Sentinel
"Sharply sketched characters and a vivid sense of place and time...highlighted the first Hook Runyon novel, The Yard Dog. This one has both of those attributes and adds sad but fascinating insights into the treatment of mental patients; the sclerotic, self-important rail industry; and the lingering pain of the Great Depression. A fine crime novel made even richer with solid historical background." --Booklist "Russell’s book is full of well-drawn characters, especially the homeless veterans who have returned to take up the wandering ways they’d lived during the Depression. Readers who enjoy exploring out-of-the-way corners of history will like the details about railroads and care of the mentally ill in 1940s that the author has used to help set the stage. For fans of historical mysteries." --Library Journal "...a fresh take on the classic 1940's noir mystery with a mesmerizing plot, intriguing characters and an interesting setting. It's another great read from this talented author." --FreshFiction.com
A one-armed railroad-security agent's troubleshooting branches out into new territory.
Hook Runyon (The Yard Dog, 2009) and his scruffy dog Mixer have a new assignment: Stop checking the tracks around Needles, Calif., and hustle over to Barstow, where the inmates of an insane asylum that burned down need to be transported to a site in Oklahoma. The catch: The surviving male inmates are from the criminal wing, and one of them may be the arsonist who started the fire. They will all be heavily medicated for the train ride and under the care of Dr. Baldwin, who has been feeling poorly lately, and Dr. Helms, who inexplicably trusts the untrustworthy asylum attendant Frankie Yager. Andrea, the heroic nurse who saved the female residents, will handle their care, assisted by a cadre of hobos, all World War II vets with antisocial difficulties, hired for the trip by Hook. The ride is chaotic. Two passengers die; the heat is overbearing; equipment breaks down; and Hook learns that complaints have been made about the asylum to the American Board of Psychiatry. When they finally arrive at the new site, a dilapidated former prison, the townspeople are hostile, Dr. Baldwin has to be hospitalized, and when Hook, reassigned, returns to see Andrea, she's vanished. Her disappearance is just one more task for Hook to handle before gathering up Mixer and taking to the rails again.
Train buffs and fans of the 1940s will be satisfied, particularly by the depiction of the hobo brotherhood, but the sketchy plot may disappoint mystery aficionados.
The Railroad Security agent Hook Runyon slipped on his arm prosthesis before sitting down in his caboose to read the Needles paper. “Boys Die in Barstow Asylum Fire,” the headlines read. He pushed the paper aside and poured a cup of coffee. There was nothing like starting a new day with coffee and a dose of human tragedy.
But he’d no sooner sat down when he heard Pap Gonzales, the Santa Fe section foreman, pull in with the motorcar. Pap was the section foreman here in Needles, California. His real name was Papan, though everyone called him Pap, including his wife and kids. They’d scheduled an early start to beat the desert heat. According to Pap, someone had been switch tampering at one of the crossings.
Hook dumped his cup and went out to meet him. Pap looked at his watch as Hook fished out a cigarette. Hook offered him one, but Pap declined. Soon they were clattering down the track. It was early and far too noisy for conversation, so they rode in silence into the desert morning.
When they arrived at the crossing, Pap coasted to a stop and shut off the motor. Hook got out and walked up and down the track. He hiked his foot up on the motorcar and then lit up another cigarette.
“I can’t see that it has been tampered with,” he said, looking up at Pap through the smoke.
“Someone’s tried to lever it over,” Pap said.
“There’s nothing left of the switch point, Pap. That’s a section-gang problem, not security. I’m tired of running out every time a car jumps track. Why don’t you fix these damn switches before someone gets killed?”
“We’ve had a war on, Hook, been fighting Germans, or maybe you don’t remember. I haven’t had men enough to keep the main line open much less patch up siding switches.”
“She’s worn thin as a razor,” Hook said. “I’d suggest you boys replace it or shut it down.”
Pap pushed back his hat. “Albuquerque’s been screaming about a washout for a week, but I’ll just tell them I got orders from the Santa Fe yard dog to shut down the line so’s he doesn’t have to be bothered.”
“That ought do it,” Hook said, climbing onto the motorcar. “Everybody knows how much pull I have around here.”
Pap cranked the engine of the motorcar and waited as she popped into life. Hooked liked riding the open car, though on a hot day in the Mojave, which was damn near every day, the wind could take off a man’s hide.
The wheels chattered and growled as the car gathered up speed. When the Needles depot came into view, Pap idled back.
“Want to go to your caboose, Hook?” he asked, over the clatter of the wheels.
“Yard office,” Hook said, pointing ahead. “Need to check in. Can you wait for me?”
Pap looked at his watch and shook his head. “Don’t be long. Main line ain’t the place to be sitting when the Chief comes through.”
The Santa Fe Chief was powered by a diesel electromotive engine. The electric giants had begun to impact the railroad. They were more efficient, more reliable, and could travel a hell of a lot more miles without maintenance. But even the advancement in equipment could not offset the reduction in manpower when thousands of men went off to war. The result was a railroad struggling to maintain its system.
Hook checked in at the yard office and found a note in his box saying Eddie Preston, his boss out of Division, wanted him to call.
He dialed the number with his prosthesis and lit a cigarette. Eddie never called unless he had a problem, and the problem for the last month had been Hook himself.
While in hot pursuit of a bum outside Flagstaff one night, Hook had abandoned the company truck. He caught the bum, and everything would have been fine, except for one small detail. He’d failed to get the tail end of the truck off the crossing. A west-bound freighter tore off the bumper and dragged it a quarter mile down line. They said it looked like the Fourth of July.
Eddie had been pretty unreasonable about the whole situation and filed Hook’s third Brownie for the year. He transferred Hook from Oklahoma to Needles, pointing out that the Mojave was just the place to keep a man prone to trouble on the straight and narrow. Hook had been awaiting the results of the Disciplinary Review Board ever since.
When Eddie came on the line, Hook doused his cigarette. “Eddie, this is Hook Runyon.”
“Where you been, Runyon? Why haven’t you called?”
“Pap’s been having problems with some switches,” he said, “and it’s hard to phone from the middle of the Mojave.”
“I got a call from Topeka,” Eddie said. “There’s a situation in Barstow.”
“What kind of situation?”
“I want you to catch the Chief in the morning. Contact a Doctor Theo Baldwin at the Baldwin Insane Asylum.”
“Insane asylum? Are you nuts, Eddie?”
“That ain’t funny, Runyon.”
“What do they want?” Hook asked.
“There’s been a fire, people killed. Their facility is damaged, so they are in need of moving a lot of people and all at once. Call me when you’ve got the details.”
It must have been the same fire he’d seen in the newspaper headline. Hook adjusted the harness for his prosthesis. The damn thing hung on him like a horse collar. He could hear Eddie breathing on the other end of the line.
“Has the disciplinary board met?” Hook asked.
“I was chasing the bastard in the middle of the night, Eddie. How could I know the damn truck hadn’t cleared the track? Anyone could have made the mistake.”
“Except it was you, Runyon, the third mistake this year.”
“But I got a commendation for busting that Nazi case in the Alva POW camp, didn’t I? That ought to count for something.”
“It does. Without it you wouldn’t even be getting a hearing. Call me when you get Barstow lined out. Topeka’s on my ass.”
Pap had gone to sleep on the motorcar, and Hook kicked the bottom of his foot.
“Take me up to the caboose, will you, Pap? I got to catch the Chief to Barstow tomorrow.”
Pap gave the crank a couple hard turns, and the motor struggled to life.
“Barstow?” he said over the top of the engine.
“Something going on at the insane asylum,” Hook said.
Pap didn’t say anything until he brought the car to a stop at the caboose.
“You’re going to the insane asylum in Barstow?” he asked.
Hook climbed off. “Just keep it to yourself, Pap. I take enough ribbing from you bastards as it is.”
“Oh, sure, sure,” Pap said. “I won’t tell a soul.”
“Come pick me up in the morning, Pap. Maybe you could take care of Mixer while I’m gone. He loves going out with the crew.”
Mixer fell into the category of mutt, an English shepherd and something or the other. The two things Mixer loved most in the world were fighting and eating, in that order.
“Damn it, Hook, you know it’s against the rules to take a dog out on the line.”
“That’s kind of the point, isn’t it, Pap? I enforce the rules, and I figure this to be a safety issue. One of your men might stir up a snake while he’s sleeping under a bridge, or you might get waylaid by banditos. That dog could save your life.”
Pap grinned, choked the engine a couple times, cranked her over, and rolled off down the track.
Mixer met Hook at the door. He wound through his legs and then went to the cabinet to beg for food. Hook had found him beat up and half-starved in the yards and brought him back to the caboose wrapped in his coat. Hook had fed him cornbread and milk and dabbed iodine on his wounds. Within a week Mixer had cleaned him out of food and never once since showed the least inclination to leave.
Though at times a nuisance, Mixer had arrived at a lonely time in Hook’s life, filling a pretty big hole. After Hook was sent to Needles, Reina had returned to Rhode Island. At first they had written letters, a commitment that had faded over time. As the months passed, the letters dwindled and the frenzy cooled, though neither had been willing to admit it.
Reina had been there for him in dangerous times in the past. They had loved and made love, and that could never be lost. But memories can fade from flames to embers and then grow cold beneath the ash. The last time they’d talked, they’d reached out to each other, never quite touching.
Hook shoved aside a pile of books in order to get the closet door open. Desperate for more room, Hook had talked his ole pal Runt Wallace into storing his book collection while he was gone.
But a man suffering from book madness had little chance of a cure. Only six months had passed, and already the caboose creaked under the weight of his new titles. With a little luck, he’d manage some book hunting in Barstow. While not the literary heart of the world, at least it would be new and different.
He dug out a change of clothes and hung them on the safety rail that ran down the center of the caboose ceiling. The old steamers had a weak power stroke on takeoff, so the engineers would back up and then throttle forward to bump her ahead. By the time the slack hit the caboose forty cars down line, a man could accelerate from zero to ten miles an hour in one second. On more than one occasion, the handrail had saved him from being propelled across the caboose like a cannonball.
A jug of Runt Wallace’s forty-year-old shine still sat in the closet. One day, given the right occasion, he’d dip in. For now, he had enough trouble to keep him busy. Eddie didn’t need much of a reason to send another Brownie his way, and finding a job for a one-arm yard dog would be tough indeed.
That night, after he’d polished his shoes, he hung his prosthesis over the chair and went to bed early to read a little of Bradbury’s Dark Carnival. When the coyotes tuned up out on the desert, Mixer growled.
“Go to sleep,” Hook said, turning out the light. “You can’t take on the whole world. Damn dog.”
Hook gathered up his pillow and listened to the coyotes. He didn’t know what awaited him at Baldwin Insane Asylum. But he did know that when Eddie called on an assignment, it would be neither good nor easy.
THE INSANE TRAIN Copyright © 2010 by Sheldon Russell.
Posted December 14, 2011