One of the fascinating things about reading espionage and crime thrillers from several decades ago is how prescient they can be about real-world shadow war. The recently reviewed Black Heart and Quiller Solitaire are cases in point, in the way they uncannily foreshadowed aspects of the 9/11 attacks. This was the idea behind the Deparment 17 project—to study shadow-fiction for its intelligence insights—and it remains a work in progress. It’s easy to forget that before the 1990s there had never been a major terrorist attack on North American soil, and Americans were still rather innocent to the threat. The 1984 thriller Maxwell’s Train, by Christopher Hyde, is another older novel that anticipates this possibility and serves up a scary scenario that could yet prove prophetic.

The narrative begins as a heist story. Harry Maxwell, once a bright, idealistic young man with big dreams from a good family, fell in with the wrong crowd and spent 7 years trafficking drugs, only getting out when he and his partner in crime Daniel were nearly killed in a rip-off. At age 35, he finds himself working as a lowly Amtrak car cleaner, with no prospects and not much to live for. Then one day he notices a strange car attached to a train and learns that it transports freshly printed bills from the Federal Reserve—some thirty-five million dollars worth, to be exact. This is enough to get Harry excited about life again, so he assembles a crew with his buddy Daniel and two other under-achievers with nothing to lose, and they begin planning the heist of the century.

The planning stage of the heist seemed rather rushed for a job of this magnitude, but there is enough descriptive detail to keep things plausible. The plan is rather ingenious, as it entails using a coffin to bring one of the men and supplies onto the train and to offload the loot, and the gassing of the security guards in the money car through a ventilation shaft. I don’t want to spoil things for you, but let’s just say the thieves get quite a shock when they force open the car door and see what’s inside.

At this point the novel transitions to the main plot: a hijacking by seven of the nastiest international terrorists in the business—veterans of the European Baader-Meinhof group, Libyan special forces and the Japanese Red Army Faction, among others. The leader of the crew, and the most lethal of them all, is the beautiful blonde German, Annalise Shenker. In addition to the huge cash haul, the train is carrying five international VIPs and is rigged with enough weapons of mass destruction to ensure that no one does anything rash.

About halfway through the story shifts gears again, as we are introduced to several new characters, including an elderly German World War II veteran visiting the country where he was kept as a POW, an old heiress who spends her time travelling North America by rail, and a spunky 15 year old runaway, all of whom are boarding an ill-fated train for Montreal. This is where I started to roll my eyes a bit, as it started to feel like one of those corny old “Poseidon Adventure”  disaster movies where we are introduced to a variety of quirky characters before catastrophe brings them together. But it actually turned out to be very entertaining, as the heist team and a motley crew of clever amateurs devise tactics, improvise weapons and muster up the courage to fight the terrorists. The last 50 or 60 pages were particularly riveting, as the protagonists make their move against the terrorists, the terrorists make their move against the passengers and threaten to unleash mass terror, government forces make their move against both, and the train rolls toward a hellish climax in the remote northern Canadian wilderness.

I was very impressed by Christopher Hyde’s smooth story-telling and technical knowledge; he knows the layouts of trains, the workings of the rail system and Canadian geography in intricate detail, and makes them integral to the story. By novel’s end I felt like I’d ridden along with the passengers on their terrifying adventure and was totally absorbed. I also liked how the heroes of this story weren’t some all-powerful government agents, but ordinary people who realized that no one was going to save them and decided to take matters into their own hands—a good reminder in this age of learned helplessness and creeping totalitarianism. All in all, an outstanding thriller, up there with the best in the genre. This was my first book by Mr. Hyde, but it definitely won’t be the last.

Get a copy of Maxwell’s Train here.

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