While researching headlines at the historical society, award-winning author Sheldon Russell discovered all the elements for a mystery. In the early 1900s, an Oklahoma mental institution burned to the ground, killing several patients. Having nowhere else to go, the survivors were moved by train to a former military post that had been given to the state. The Insane Train (St. Martin’s Minotaur), the second installment in the Hook Runyon mystery series, launches Nov. 9, 2010.
“In the early 20th century, Fort Supply served as a supply camp for the winter campaign against the Southern Plains Indians in what is now western Oklahoma,” said Russell, an Oklahoma native, whose previous work includes The Yard Dog, Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush and Requiem at Dawn. “When Oklahoma was still a young state a fire broke out in a private mental institution in Norman. The fire killed a number of inmates, who were then buried in a mass grave in Norman. About that same time, the federal government donated Fort Supply to the state of Oklahoma. The decision was made to make it a mental institution and to transfer all the patients from the burned-down facility there by train. It struck me as material for a mystery, so I took the situation and expanded it.”
In The Insane Train, one-armed yard dog Hook Runyon, has been transferred from Oklahoma to Needles, Calif. Amidst tackling train-jumping, moonshine-making hobos, Hook is summoned to Baldwin Insane Asylum. The boys’ ward burned to the ground, killing more than 30 youth. The only solution for Dr. Baldwin and Psychiatrist Bria Helms is to relocate the remaining “inmates” to Fort Supply. They need Hook’s help to transport the group, including the secure ward—men who have been deemed criminally insane. While compassionate for those coping with mental illness, Hook questions the practicality of transporting mental patients, including those who have killed others, with few staff. And Hook has a feeling that the fire wasn’t started by poor electrical wiring.
“Inmate was the accepted terminology at the time and explains a lot about how mental patients were viewed,” said Russell, who had toured Fort Supply as a college psychology student. “One of the things I try to do in the book is to show the human side of mental patients.”
With a motley group of World War II vets, each suffering from his own version of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Hook and his dog, Mixer, escort the bunch on the oldest train still running. The trip, already beset with challenges, quickly goes awry. Several inmates and attendants are found dead, and Dr. Baldwin seems increasingly disoriented and incapable of running operations. With Nurse Andrea’s help, Hook begins investigating the suspicious deaths and uncovers a trail of revenge years in the planning.
“I know and like men who are uneducated but wise. Hook is such a man,” said Russell. “I’m not so much taken with writing about disabilities as I am with writing about struggle. A character with a physical or mental disability manifests struggle in an obvious and concrete way.”
A retired college professor, Russell lives in Guthrie, Okla., with his wife, Nancy, an artist. He has previously won the Oklahoma Book Award and the Langum Prize for Historical Literature. The Yard Dog, the first Hook Runyon novel, was nominated for the Oklahoma Book Award and earned high praise as Russell’s debut mystery.
“Russell’s engrossing mystery casts light on a little-known corner of American history.” –Publishers Weekly about The Yard Dog
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