Tuesday, February 8, 2011

NEW STUFF : The Insane Train - Sheldon Russell

Here's a great recipe for a crime novel cocktail: Start with one part inmates of an insane asylum, add one part WW2 vets living as hobos under a bridge. Stir in one railroad yard security man. Shake vigorously. Serve on board a train immediately. You're bound to get a dead body or two in that mix-up. This is The Insane Train -- Sheldon Russell's wild ride of a crime novel that takes the reader from Barstow, California where an insane asylum has been destroyed in a mysterious fire to Oklahoma where the asylum founder wants to relocate his charges in a converted nineteeth century army fort. This is the second novel featuring an excitingly original character – Hook Runyon, a one-armed railroad security man, or "yard dog" in the parlance of train men.

It sure took a long time for the train to get going. As for the journey itself, based on the jacket blurb I thought was going to be reading And Then There Were None on rails. Instead the story turned out to be more of a crime thriller with a colorful train background that kept pushing its way into the foreground. In fact, the train journey itself takes up only a third of the book. No sooner does the killer strike but is eliminated in a gruesomely described scene. It's less "Who done it?" and more and more "What the heck is going on here?"

The story has many tangential elements. For a second book there seemed to be a bit too much emphasis placed on Hook's life as it related to his job rather than the story of the inmates, the vets and the killer wreaking havoc on and off the train. I was disappointed that the mystery took a back seat to Hook's little romance with a nurse, Hook's impending hearing with railway officials, Hook's problems with a brutish thug of a cop, and the many mechanical and navigational problems encountered on the beat up train that takes the inmates to Oklahoma.

One aspect of Hook's life that I did like came as a complete surprise. He is an avid book collector. There are quite a few amateur detectives in the genre who have this hobby, but it's often mentioned just in passing. I usually go out of my way to buy any mystery that has book collecting as part of the plot, so this was a nice bonus.

Hook's hobby comes to the foreground in two informative scenes that tells me Russell must be something of a bibliophile himself, if not a bibliomaniac. When Andrea, the nurse, asks Hook if it's an interest of his he replies that it is rather "[a]n obsession. and I'm not the best company when I'm in the midst of a hunt." But he asks Andrea to tag along with him not once, but twice. She seems to bring him good luck, too, as he finds a few book treasures in their days out together.

As a study in the failing corporate railway industry of the post WW2 era this crime novel works very well. For a detective novel enthusiast like me it left me with mixed feelings because the author keep leaving the main story hanging while he went off with Hook someplace else. Still, I'll be looking for the first book (The Yard Dog) to see how that compares. But there's no doubt that Russell loves trains. He is like one of your old college instructors who knew how to take a topic that might seem incredibly dry and make it come to life in a fascinating way.


  1. I could only think of the Cliff Janeway books by John Dunning when you mentioned detective characters who collect books. Are there any others you'd recommend?

  2. Carol -

    Lawrence Block created Bernie Rhodenbarr in a series of books with titles that begin The Burglar Who... about a thief who also collect books. Late in the series he opens a bookstore. The Burglar in the Library is about acquiring a rare signed Raymond Chandler 1st edition. Doubly good for the Chandler element. Not all the books are about book collecting or the antiquarian book trade. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams deals with the theft of a baseball card collection valued at $1 million. That one has a plot as complicated and screwy as The Big Sleep.

    Others from a more vintage period --

    Elizabeth Daly's books about Henry Gamadge are almost all exclusively about books and manuscripts. She was Agatha Christie's favorite American mystery writer, BTW. Examples: Murders in Volume 2 is about a stolen volume of Byron's works. The Book of the Lion about the discovery of something that could have been written by Chaucer.

    In Fast Company by Marco Page a bookseller and his wife try to solve the murder of a crooked bookseller who framed a man for the theft of some highly valuable books still missing two years after the crime.

    Those are the only books or series I can immediately think of where the detective character collects books. There are plenty of bibliomysteries dealing with book collecting and the trade - both contemporary and vintage. I might have to do a post about that.

  3. I knew you'd steer me in the right direction. Dutifully added to the list of books to read. And a post on that topic would be worth reading. Thanks.

  4. David Vineyard here.

    Bill Pronzini's private eye Nameless is a BLACK MASK collector, and Lawrence Block's sleepless secret agent Tanner reads incessently. Nero Wolfe isn't a collector, but a voracious reader, at least one book (THE DOORBELL RANG) turning in part on the book Wolfe is reading, and Mark Schorr's rough tough private eye Red Diamond is a taxi driver who went a little nuts when his wife destroyed his pulp collection and now thinks he is a Spillane style sleuth.

    Julian Symons has an actor sleuth in two books who plays Sherlock Holmes on television and is obcessed with Holmes and Conan Doyle, and while it is a bit out of the direct line Corso, the hero of Arturo Perez Reverte's THE CLUB DUMAS, is a book jobber who is a sort of book detective --- albeit an unscrupulous one. If you only know the story from the Roman Polanski/Johnny Depp film THE NINTH GATE, read the book --- it offers many pleasures --- especially for Dumas fans.

    Re this book, I will have to look into it. I'm a sucker for murder in and on the railroad tracks.

  5. Loved this post. Right up my alley. Couldn't find your email, and I wanted to let you know you won the copy of Alan Bradley's A Red Herring without Mustard. Go to Mystery Fanfare and click on my profile for my email. Thx. Congrats!

  6. Woo-hoo! That made my day less than mundane. Thanks. Mailing address was sent a minute ago.

  7. I had a Q&A with Sheldon Russell last year on my blog where he tells a little bit more about this book and himself:


    "Publishers Weekly" even named it one of their 6 best mystery/thriller novels for 2010. He's another one of those "overnight successes," and apparently a great guy. I also haven't read his first Runyon, YARD DOG, but will seek it out.

  8. Thanks, BV. I especially liked learning that the transport of patients by train to a fort in Oklahoma was based in fact. His next book sounds just as unusual as THE INSANE TRAIN.

    Should've known he was a college professor. I bet his classes were popular.