1943. A dreary Oklahoma town, where the Dust Bowl and Depression still hang heavily over the residents. Hook Runyon is drifting from one drunken spree to the next, moving the old caboose where he lives when he wants some variety. Hook, you see, is a yard dog – a railroad bull – ok, a guy hired to police a section of the railroad line. His job is to toss hoboes off the cars, keep the railroad employees marginally honest, and catch the petty criminals who occasionally crop up on his ‘beat’.
Hook isn’t an ordinary yard dog, though. While a student in college, he lost an arm in a car accident, and now wears a prosthesis (hence the nickname). After being dumped by his fiancee, Hook took to the rails, traveling around the country in the depths of the Depression, working odd jobs, living in hobo jungles and sometimes fighting for his life. Having seen the other side, he’s tolerant of minor infractions around his main station, a piece of nowhere called Waynoka. For instance, he overlooks Spark Dugan’s coal-picking. Spark is mentally handicapped, and after being abandoned by his family when they fled West, subsists on picking up chunks of coal along the track – or stealing coal from the tenders when he can. He earns enough to keep him stocked with tobacco, bologna, and moonshine, which is all he really wants from life. But Spark turns up dead under unusual circumstances, and Hook takes it on himself to find out why.
He comes up against problems almost immediately – his boss wants Spark’s death written off as an accident. The yard foreman warns him off the case, going so far as to have Hook’s caboose dragged from its siding. And when clues begin pointing in the direction of a nearby prisoner-of-war camp, he has to deal with military policemen equipped with tommy guns and fanatical German prisoners captured when the Reich still stood astride the world.
He also begins to develop relationships with two surprising people. Reina Kaplan has been assigned to oversee reeducation programs at the POW camp. As an educated Jewish woman from New York, she is completely out of place, but fortunate enough to meet Hook shortly after arriving. Little more than a boy, Runt Wallace is the local bootlegger, sole provider for his mother and siblings, and a 4F draft reject who resents being stuck at home. The two of them become allies in Hook’s search for the truth, but also benefit from Hook’s presence in their lives.
The puzzle at the heart of the story is too complex to delve into, but is well worth reading for. The real attraction to me, though, is Russell’s ability to find the details that set the story’s atmosphere. He captures the feel of a small town in the Forties, the hopelessness of people stranded in a bleakly beautiful landscape, and the pervasive pessimism of those whose sons are forever destined to be infantry grunts in foreign wars. Russell also takes us into the midst of a working railyard, where grit and grease are the only constants, and where the romance of the rolling steel gives way to the hot and dangerous reality that maiming or death are the penalties for a moment’s inattention. The jacket indicates that this is the first in a series – I’m going to be listening for Number 2 to come down the track.
Check the WRL catalog for The Yard Dog