The Insane Train
Review: Hook Runyan, who provides security for the Santa Fe Railroad as a "yard dog", is sent to Barstow to meet with the director of a local institution for the mentally ill … for what purpose he doesn't know … in The Insane Train, the second mystery in this series set in the 1940s by Sheldon Russell.
"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 [his boss] Eddie called on an assignment, it would be neither good nor easy." And indeed isn't. A suspicious fire on the campus of the institution has destroyed the men's dorm, killing over 30 people. Though insurance will cover the loss of the building, the director, Dr. Theo Baldwin, under pressure from the Governor, wants the patients — inmates really, some of whom are criminally violent — moved to a more secure facility. Baldwin, who had plans to expand anyway, has decided to move the entire facility from California to Oklahoma, where he has purchased an abandoned military fort. He has enlisted the help of the railroad for transportation and security, hence Hook's presence. Even though he believes the strategy for moving everyone is misguided, Hook hires on a few local homeless men, ex-Army, to help him. Not long after leaving Barstow, however, one of the more dangerous patients is murdered. Hook has a lengthy list of potential suspects but precious few clues as to the identity of the killer.
If one were to imagine Hook relating this story to his grandchildren, the manner in which it would be told matches perfectly the narrative style of The Insane Train. It's laid back, yet edgy; cautious yet confident. His personality really comes through, and he's a man one would like to get to know better, spend more time with.
There's a constant sense of unease in the plot that adds an underlying layer of tension and suspense to the events as they unfold. Though it takes a little too long for the "insane train" to get started, once underway it's a nonstop race to the dramatic finish.
As wonderfully drawn as the human characters are here, the trains also take on personalities of a kind that are amazingly effective in setting the stage for the plot, providing background information that adds depth and interest. Consider this passage from early in the book:
As he climbed in, a west-bound steamer rolled into the yards for a drink and fuel. Hook could smell the heat from her firebox. She bumped and rattled as a dozen empty boxcars gathered up slack. Behind them, a line of flatcars carried Sherman tanks and army jeeps. The old steamer hissed and sighed as she settled in.
The Insane Train is a solidly crafted mystery that will appeal to train aficionados, history buffs, and anyone who enjoys a good story well told.
Acknowledgment: Minotaur Books provided an ARC of The Insane Train for this review.
Review Copyright © 2010 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
The Yard Dog
Minotaur Books (Hardcover), September 2009
ISBN-13: 9780312566708; ISBN-10: 0312566700
Location(s) referenced in The Insane Train: California, California
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The Insane Train by Sheldon Russell — A Hook Runyon Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: November 2010
List Price: $25.99