The Yard Dog
Review: Set in the mid-1940s along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway lines in northern Oklahoma, Sheldon Russell introduces a rather unusual character, Hook Runyon, a one-armed railroad agent, sometimes known as a "yard dog", hired to run off hobos and arrest pickpockets, in The Yard Dog, the first mystery in this series.
Spark Dugan, a non-too-bright loner, has lived in a tar paper shack beneath a railway trestle just about all his life. He discovered early on that when the coal cars stopped at the station, chunks of coal would fall to the ground. He gathered the bits of coal and finding a ready market, sold them to local residents for heating or cooking. On a good day he would make enough money for some "shine" to drink, a Bull Durham to smoke, and some baloney for frying. But now there's a war on, and Oklahoma has a POW camp with 5000 prisoners along the rail lines. More trains are coming, which means more people, which means Spark has to be more careful not to be seen taking the coal, even at night. One night he is evidently not careful enough. The next morning his body is found beneath a refrigerator, or "reefer", car on the tracks. Hook Runyan was both a friend and customer of Spark. Spark had delivered a bucket of coal every morning to Hook's home–an old caboose. Although the men that find him said Spark must have committed suicide, Hook does not even consider that as an option. He believes Spark was murdered. But why? He doesn't know. But he and his good friend Runt, the local moonshiner, set out to learn the truth. What they find is a far greater crime than any they could have ever imagined.
Russell has created one of the most noteworthy characters in modern detective fiction. Hook Runyon is tough, smart, witty … and collects first editions! When he begins to investigate the death of Spark, he heads for the POW camps, the only recent change in the landscape. There are prisoners who are ordered to help unload the trains that pass through, and of course there are men who guard them. But there's also the local millionaire, Hugh Favor, who owns the Favor Oil Company. Hook's investigation suggests there is some relationship–conspiracy?–between Favor and the train deliveries, but he's unsure how to proceed … and who at the camp may also be involved and benefits.
The Yard Dog has so much to offer. Russell relives the horrors of Hitler's Germany, and its impact on rural Americans in the form of POW camps. Into this mix he brings a one-armed yard dog, a book collector who takes a shine to moonshine. And there's a new lady in his life, Dr. Reina Kaplan, who is down from New York to teach English to the prisoners. The plot is well thought out, the characters memorable, the setting unusual, overall it's incredible. The Yard Dog is not only one of the best debuts of the year, it is among the best mysteries of the year.
Special thanks to guest reviewer Betty of The Betz Review for contributing her review of The Yard Dog.
Acknowledgment: Minotaur Books provided a copy of The Yard Dog for this review.
Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
The Insane Train
Minotaur Books (Hardcover), November 2010
ISBN-13: 9780312566715; ISBN-10: 0312566719
Location(s) referenced in The Yard Dog: Oklahoma
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The Yard Dog by Sheldon Russell — A Hook Runyon Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: September 2009
List Price: $24.99