Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be hit by a train? Well “Dead Man’s Tunnel” instantly gives you that vicarious experience.
Since there has been a resurgence of interest in railroads, the Hook Runyan series fits right in exploring the life of a railroad detective! yard dog in the 1940s Southwest, the post W W II era.
It takes place in Arizona where a tunnel is being repaired for a reason connected to the Army’s post-war plans incorporating atomic energy, and espionage ensues. More than one death is the result leading Hook to clash over territoriality with that rarity in the 1940s, a female officer.
Since plane travel for the masses was yet to come trains were where the action was. Riding with the Atcheson, Topeka, & Santa Fe one had a true American experience, lounging on oversized chairs decorated with a Navajo motif and dining on Mimbreno turtle china while racing across the North American desert.
Russell describes the Super Chief as, “luxurious as a fine hotel…with a guest list to rival the Ritz… decked with teak and ebony. She smelled of leather and linen and sported original art.”
I grew up thinking I could “ride the rails” because my father told me stories about Petie, Mikey, and Joey who did just that.
I did not realize until I was an adult that one of his favorite books was Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and that few females ever got to have such experiences.
So the closest I could come was doing research on the Harvey Girls, waitresses along the Santa Fe line. They rode with passes which were a perk of their job.
Hook Runyan encounters the Harvey Girls as he traverses the country sleuthing. He is a one-armed, chain-smoking, former hobo turned yard dog who lives with his four-legged dog, Mixer. They reside in a caboose giving them the mobility to have adventures in various locations.
Hook’s avocation is book collecting. Scouting for books was less professional in the postwar years than now and, as Hook reminds himself when he is broke, no serious collector ever wants to sell his treasures anyway. He especially loves estate sales since he believes “peoples reading lives could be as unpredictable as their sex lives.”
Russell’s inspiration was a father who worked for the railroad and the lore he heard growing up in Oklahoma. His characters are colorful even for a man’s world and their banter reflects his expertise with dialogue. Plots are complex, yet realistic thanks to his in depth research.
Readers should begin with book one, “The Yard Dog,” which introduces Runyan the man and his novel occupation. Set in Waynoka, Oklahoma it describes intrigue at a nearby German prisoner of war camp.
In Waynoka today, the depot has been restored and turned into a museum housing both Harvey and Santa Fe memorabilia.
Fred Harvey began his hospitality empire with one restaurant at the Topeka Santa Fe depot in 1876.
Book two is my favorite thus far. Titled, “The Insane Train,” it is based on an actual event. When an insane asylum in Oklahoma burns to the ground all of the staff and the patients much be transferred by train to an abandoned fort. A crazy ride which also shows the mental health practices of the day.
Dr. Russell is currently a professor emeritus at the University of Central Oklahoma, making his home in Guthrie. He is the author or four other novels but this is his first series.
Michaeline Chance-Reay is a writer and historian in Manhattan.