After a devastating fire at an insane asylum in California, Hook Runyon has been put in charge of security for a train that is to transport the survivors, alongside the head of the asylum, Dr. Baldwin, the attending doctor, taciturn Dr. Helms, and a self-sacrificing nurse named Andrea, to a new location in Oklahoma. Hook hires a motley crew of WW II veterans to help, and they set out for the new destination. But things go awry on the Insane Train, as several inmates and attendants are found dead, and Dr. Baldwin seems increasingly disoriented and incapable of running operations. With Andrea's help, Hook begins investigating the suspicious deaths, and uncovers a trail of revenge that has been a long time in the planning...by a person as mentally disturbed as her charges.
In Russell's outstanding second Hook Runyon 1940s historical (after 2009's The Yard Dog), Hook's boss at the Santa Fe Railroad gives the railroad security agent (or "yard dog") a herculean assignment. Hook must insure the safe transport of the survivors of a horrific fire at the Baldwin Insane Asylum in Barstow, Calif., that claimed dozens of lives to a facility in Oklahoma. This group includes dangerous inmates who'd been housed in the asylum's security ward, one of whom may have started the fatal conflagration. Hook recruits four down-on-their-luck ex-army men, reduced to living under a train bridge, to help him, but their assistance may not be enough when a killer strikes en route. Russell imbues even bit characters with personality, and presents a rough-edged view of the world that will be familiar to fans of classic hard-boiled writers such as Chandler and Hammett.