Super: A Novel

Super: A Novel

2.2 7
by Jim Lehrer

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

April 1956: Climbing aboard the Sante Fe railroad’s famous Super Chief is an amazing spectrum of passengers. There’s Darwin Rinehart, a once great Hollywood producer who now faces bankruptcy. In a dark recess of a train car hides a mysterious, disheveled man who has not…  See more details below


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

April 1956: Climbing aboard the Sante Fe railroad’s famous Super Chief is an amazing spectrum of passengers. There’s Darwin Rinehart, a once great Hollywood producer who now faces bankruptcy. In a dark recess of a train car hides a mysterious, disheveled man who has not paid for a ticket, smuggled inside by an unscrupulous porter. Millionaire Otto Wheeler arrives in a wheelchair; deathly ill, he knows that this will be his last trip on the great train. Clark Gable causes a stir when he steps aboard, and though he’s ridden these rails for years, indulging in booze and women with equal fervor, those around him sense that this time, something is different. And finally there’s former President Harry Truman, distinguished, congenial, and constantly accompanied by a railroad detective.

As the Super Chief pulls out of Dearborn Station, the passengers—famous and infamous, anonymous and enigmatic—can’t possibly imagine what lies ahead. For as the train gains speed, a series of deadly events unfolds.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Those expecting an Agatha Christie homage from TV journalist Lehrer (Mack to the Rescue) will be disappointed by this subpar crime novel set in 1956 almost entirely aboard the Super Chief, the train that ran for years between Chicago and Los Angeles. Passengers include a mysterious sickly man, Dale Lawrence, who gets on in Chicago after bribing a porter for a sleeping berth, as well as celebrities like Clark Gable and former president Harry Truman. Many pages of superficial character development pass before the first corpse appears. Arch attempts at satire (e.g., a movie producer's plan for a film set on the train is clearly meant to be a nod to Hitchcock's North by Northwest) don't mix well with earnest scenes like the one in which Lawrence confronts Truman about his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and later authorize nuclear tests in Nevada. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
Everyone's dying to take the Super Chief in TV newsman Lehrer's 20th novel, which, like his 19th (Oh, Johnny, 2009), is a valentine to the days when life and death seemed simpler, even if the people who lived and died weren't. Most Hollywood stars have long since abandoned the railroads by April 1956. But Clark Gable, who hasn't flown on a civilian aircraft since his wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash in 1941, still takes the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. The King's routine is so pat that porters who know him can schedule his dinner, his drinks and his assignations with star-struck fans with barely a syllable from him. Gable isn't the only celebrity on the Super Chief; ex-President Harry S. Truman will board in Kansas City, setting up a memorable non-conversation between the two aging lions. But the real drama revolves around three less distinguished citizens. Hollywood producer Darwin Rinehart is already a has-been at 40. Wheelchair-bound cancer patient Otto Wheeler, a longtime regular aboard the Super Chief, is taking his very last trip to his home town of Bethel, Kan. And Dale L. Lawrence has negotiated privately with a redcap for a sleeper off the company books and a chance to speak to the former President on a matter of life or death. Before the train pulls into Los Angeles, two passengers will be dead by violence, another will be suspected as an imposter and passenger agent Charlie Sanders will find himself cast in the role of accidental detective. This isn't Murder on the Orient Express, or North by Northwest, which gets prophetically brainstormed in the course of the journey; the plot complications flicker away with the miles. Instead it's a humane, oftengently humorous evocation of an era Lehrer obviously loves and mourns. A pipe dream of a world in which mere mortals can't imagine any higher honor than dying aboard the Super Chief.
From the Publisher
“Sheer delights . . . combines the rolling suspense of Murder on the Orient Express with the high jinks of [Lehrer’s] lighter novels.”—The Kansas City Star

“[Jim] Lehrer is a national treasure, and Super is, well . . . super.”—Booklist

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Dearborn Station, Chicago, was where the stories of the three Super Chief deaths began and ended. They started with Dale L. Lawrence, a Private, slipping through a back door of the station crew’s ready room and moving to Track 7 and then alongside the Super, as admirers called the Santa Fe Railway’s famed streamliner.

 Lawrence followed closely a porter named Ralph to a vestibule door, then up into a still- empty sleeping car. Ralph had been reluctant to do business with this man, mostly because of his appearance. Not only was he sickly, his clothes were wrinkled and unclean. And he had no luggage. But the price was right, less than a full fare but better than nothing. Thirty- five dollars in cash was cheap for a ride from Chicago to Los Angeles on America’s most luxurious all- sleeper train. In the workaday language of the Super there were four categories of passengers—Privates, Strays, Regulars and Stars. A Private was a person who traveled as the result of a one- on- one deal with a sleeping car attendant. This longtime practice had begun during the travel conditions of World War Two. Cash money had a way of finding room on the most crowded of trains. 

Now, in this April of 1956 with fewer passengers and plenty of space available, the attraction was a fare cheaper than the official one. 

“This is yours,” said Ralph, pushing open the door to a small roomette. “It will not be made up as a bed in case I need it suddenly for a Stray—you know, a passenger who pays a conductor for an upgrade or wants to change bedrooms.” 

Lawrence nodded to Ralph. He understood. But instead of speaking, he coughed. Ralph had heard the man, who appeared to be in his late forties, do little else but cough since they first met at Dearborn Station and made their business arrangement. “Remember now, there could be conductors around at almost any time looking at tickets, so you must stay right here in this bedroom, sir,” Ralph said. “I’ll bring you a sandwich or something to eat after we leave the station and a roll with coffee in the morning. You do cream and sugar?” 

The man shook his head but said nothing. 

Ralph took a closer look at him. His brown suit, though to Ralph’s trained eyes an expensive Nash Brothers’, was slack and stained, his flowered tie away from the collar, his white shirt soiled, his heavy blond hair uncombed, his face, drawn and gray, with at least a day’s beard. 

Ralph said, “Well, if anyone but me should happen to knock on the door, hide in the bathroom and don’t answer.” He hit a knuckle on the door, then followed with two quick knocks. “That’s my signal. One knock, pause, then one- two.” He did the three knocks again. “You follow me?” 

Lawrence nodded—and coughed again. 

“You’re going all the way to Los Angeles, right, mister?” 

Ralph asked as he prepared to leave the roomette, the smallest of the accommodations available on the Super. There were also bedrooms, drawing rooms and compartments of varying sizes, but mostly, every space was referred to as a compartment. “At least until Kansas City,” the man said. 

Ralph shrugged, closed the door and went on with his other non- Private duties. 

Here now was Clark Gable, a Star, coming down the station platform toward his sleeping car. A redcap named James was taking care of him and his luggage. Darwin Rinehart, a Regular, felt a flash of joy and wellbeing— for the first time in months. 

“Hey, King Clark!” he called out. 

The King of Hollywood, as they called Clark Gable, jerked his head in Rinehart’s direction but after only a glance turned back away. The message was unmistakable. But Rinehart chose to ignore it. 

“Gable’s not going to talk to you,” said Gene Mathews, another Regular who was Rinehart’s associate in the movie business as well as his best friend. “Don’t humiliate yourself, for god’s sake.” 

“Go ahead and get us settled,” Rinehart said quietly to Russell, his own redcap. He and James would be handsomely rewarded for providing this special treatment of boarding the Super Chief early and privately—before all the other passengers. Rinehart had no idea, of course, that a Private had preceded even them a few minutes earlier. 

Rinehart approached Gable while Mathews and James headed to the first car, half sleeping accommodations and a bar- lounge at the end of the Super Chief, which was backed into the platform for loading. 

While the Super was still known and celebrated as the Train of the Stars, some of its Hollywood glitter had switched to airliners. Errol Flynn and his pair of lion- sized dogs that often traveled with him were long gone from the Super. So were William Holden, Cecil B. DeMille and Grace Dodsworth. Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, Edward G. Robinson and Judy Garland were the major remaining Stars. Recently Judy Garland had even had a mock wedding ceremony performed by a Super engineer during a brief stop someplace in Arizona or New Mexico. 

But the real Super fan, among the Stars, had always been Clark Gable. There wasn’t a porter, steward, barber or conductor on this train who didn’t have a Clark Gable story to tell, most of them concerning booze and/or women. 

Gable was handing out cash to James when Rinehart got there. “Hey, King Clark, how are you, pal?” said Rinehart. He started to thrust out his right hand but decided against it once he saw that both of Gable’s hands—known as the largest in Hollywood—and full attention were involved in the dispensing of money. 

Barely flicking his head in the direction of Rinehart, Gable said, “Fine. I’m fine.” 

Rinehart said, “We came on the Broadway Limited from New York. Didn’t see you. You must have come on the Twentieth Century—or another train. Right?” 

Gable didn’t throw even a glance. 

“Maybe we could get a drink, maybe have a meal together tonight or tomorrow?” Rinehart persisted. “We’ve got forty hours ahead of us here on the Super before LA.” 

“I’m not going to get out much this trip. Got work to do.” Gable stepped on the stool and up into the vestibule of his car, still without making direct eye contact. 

Rinehart fell back a step, as if he had been physically pushed away. 

Charlie Sanders, an assistant general passenger agent for Santa Fe, asked, “How many times have you ridden with us on the Super, Mr. Wheeler?” 

Otto Wheeler, a Regular, sat in a wheelchair, no longer having the strength in his legs and lower body to take more than a few difficult steps on his own. 

Sanders was there with the redcaps and attendants helping carry Wheeler up and into a drawing room in “Taos,” as the rounded- end combination car was named. 

How many times have you ridden with us on the Super, Mr. Wheeler? 

Wheeler heard and understood the question. This nice young railroad man deserved an answer. Wheeler’s first trips on this train of stainless steel silver beauty were when he was still a kid. His parents took him and his sisters to Kansas City and Chicago or, a few times, west to Albuquerque or Los Angeles. Then there were at least two or three times a year when he was at the University of Chicago and, later, at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. Since then, on business or pleasure, there were so many travels on the Super that Wheeler’s friends had begun to refer to the train as his second home. 

His trips had become almost obsessively frequent in the last four years. 

Wheeler suffered from a terrible cancer that had begun as a sore throat. His face, once tanned and round like a happy pumpkin, was the color of white starch and resembled the face of an ancient ghost. His 205- pound body now weighed 135. “One thousand four hundred and sixty- two,” Wheeler replied. His voice was weak but still audible. 

Sanders laughed. “I believe it, sir, I believe it—and then some. They tell me that if there was a world’s record for riding the Super you’d hold it, that’s for sure.” 

Wheeler was forty- two, single, religious and wealthy. His money and religion came from his family, who owned most of the giant grain elevators that were the economic and geographical centers of the cities and towns in the wheat country of central Kansas. Wheeler lived in Bethel, a major Santa Fe Railroad division point between Wichita and Kansas City; its residents were mostly Randallites, a sect of early settlers escaping religious persecution in Europe. 

Otto Wheeler was on his way home to Bethel now on the Super Chief. 

From the Hardcover edition.

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