Trains have long been the preferred mode of transportation for mystery and suspense novels. The appetizing prospect of describing a closed world of sedate elegance has tempted writers from Mark Twain to David Westheimer into novels or stories featuring a train as a vehicle for intrigue and romance. Who, after all, would ever dream of "The Great Bus Robbery"?
In his fifth novel, "Maxwell's Train," Christopher Hyde has combined a caper with a terrorist thriller. Assume that every Saturday, the Federal Reserve ships $35 million from Washington to Boston on Amtrak's Night Owl in a lightly guarded revamped Railway Post Office. For Harry Maxwell, former drug courier and current maintenance man for Amtrak, the shipment represents the last chance to make something out of himself, to cap a life of merciless failure with a brief, glorious success.
Maxwell, however, is not the only criminal interested in the shipment. Pitted against him are a gang of terrorists, including Japanese Red Army members, Sandinistas, Baader-Meinhof types, Libyans trained in converted Nazi bases, Italian Red Brigade commandos and assorted assistant felons, temporarily united as the "World People's Army." (Like bomber crews in 1940s war novels, terrorist gangs in 1980s thrillers have to be ethnically and racially balanced.) The terrorists alternately battle Maxwell's band of renegades and well-armed, extremely inept representatives of Canadian and American security services, until an explosive climax in the Canadian Rockies.
One does not read this sort of thriller for insights into character or new reflections into the way we live. Hyde is not John le Carre' or Charles McCarry; he paints his characters in the broad, shallow strokes preferred by most of his competitors in the action/adventure marketplace. His terrorists are as ruthless, and as empty, as mad slashers in modern horror films, differentiated from each other only by the language in which they choose to swear. Maxwell and his thieves are typical burned-out '60s hustlers. The only memorable characters are Ronald Mottbrown and Wanda Margay, two inveterate train buffs who provide brief glimpses of comedy in the midst of the relentless action.
One reads thrillers of this type, after all, for two reasons: first to participate vicariously in organized schemes against authority; second, for dramatized reportage about submerged aspects of the world.
Hyde has always been a resourceful reporter; his first novel, "The Wave," was a minor tale of ecological disaster memorable only for its insights into Columbia River dam construction. A biographical note to "Maxwell's Train" states that Hyde "has made 18 coast-to-coast trips on American and Canadian railways." He put his miles on the tracks to good use; from the switchyards in Capreol, Ontario, to the grimy back lots of Union Station, Hyde clearly knows the dynamics of train life. Occasionally, he gets facts wrong, such as constantly referring to Conrail as "Consolidated" and having Harry Maxwell and his fellow plotters scheme in an area of E Street where few people live. Sometimes he gives us more facts than we can use, as when he describes a C-130 Hughes aircraft with "Pave Spike video tape recorders, Pave Strike laser target designators, infrared Linescan cameras, and Compass Link data transmission facilities" -- equipment that remains unused when the aircraft zooms out of the book two pages later.
Nonetheless, Hyde has done what, until this book, I would have considered an impossible task -- he has restored the train as an object of intrigue. We may be long past the days of freshly plucked roses in dining-room vases, but thriller fans can be confident that, thanks to this entertaining novel, trains can still be packed with Uzi-brandishing thugs and passenger cars spiked with deadly anthrax bacilli.
Think about that the next time you buy an Amtrak ticket.