The Insane Train lives up to its title as a group of displaced mental patients travel from the Baldwin Insane Asylum in Barstow, California, to another location in Oklahoma during the Second World War. Thanks to military demands, men and supplies are short. When a fire rages through the Barstow facilities leaving thirty young men dead, the director, Dr. Theo Baldwin, has no option but to move the survivors - including the criminally insane - to the building he has purchased in Oklahoma, a former military barracks.
As a railroad agent, or “yard dog,” Hook Runyon is tasked with connecting patients to the train and delivering them safely to the new environment. Easier said than done. Hook is a fabulous protagonist in a field where writers attempt to capture their audience’s attention with memorable personalities. Hook’s “hook” is exactly that: a prosthesis that serves as the hand he lost. Not unfamiliar with the hobos who make their way around the country riding the rails of freighters, Runyon fins a few good men in a local camp, but not without some liability, as the vets have not yet integrated back into the world they occupied before the war.
It’s an interesting match, the battled-scarred vets and the mental patients, supplemented with the few staff who are willing to relocate with the hospital: Dr. Baldwin; his associate director, Dr. Bria Helms; and Frankie, the laconic orderly who listens to Frankie Laine records full-volume while on duty. But even Hook and the vets are unprepared for the ice-cold eyes of the killers in the strictest security ward, a group of men who are daunting alone but even more intimidating when shackled together for a long ride through the desert.
Hook has eyes for the nurse, Andrea Delven, who has a special affection for her female charges, each possessed of her own idiosyncrasy, whether exhibitionism or a disorder that causes one to bang her head over and over until stopped. For her part, Andrea is attracted to the eccentric yard dog, a collector of rare books who lives in a caboose. Not yet inspired to look upon such mental illness with any compassion, the public is generally frightened by such issues. Having trouble handling his own business, including a hearing to save his job, Hook understands all too clearly that the sooner these patients get from Barstow to their new home, the better off everyone will be: “There was nothing like starting a new day with coffee and a dose of human tragedy.”
As might be expected on The Insane Train, violence is afoot - gut-churning, grisly murders, enough to make the doctors and orderlies fear for their own safety, let alone the cold reception they receive at the other end of the line. Tapping into the madness of war and the damage done to men unprepared for the level of violence they face, the lines are blurred between what really constitutes crazy behavior - except in the case of the violent patients, of course. Their intentions are all too clear.
Russell manipulates this bizarre blend of characters and landscape with a subtle hand and plenty of social context, bringing his characters and their situations to life in unexpected ways, from the very likable Hook Runyon to his scrappy little dog companion to the vets who find a place with those the public shuns. Crafting an exciting tale from the remnants of war and the crisis faced by Baldwin’s fading fortunes, Russell offers an original series of crime novels with a protagonist as colorful as his cases.