The Great Train Hijack

The Great Train Hijack


I had little information to go on when I picked up The Great Train Hijack (originally titled The Gravy Train), published in 1971 by Whit Masterson. All I knew was that it featured a prison break, a train hijacking and a heist, and that sounded good enough for me to give it a read.

The novel’s antagonist is Anthony Heaston, the brilliant ex-leader of a Special Forces unit called “Heaston’s Hellions” that raised a lot of hell in the early days of the Vietnam War. Once a promising young colonel, Heaston was blamed for the murder of a South Vietnamese leader and relegated to a Pentagon basement, his career ruined. Bitter at the president and the military establishment for not backing him up, Heaston resigned and turned to outlaw mercenary work around the globe. But eventually he was captured leading revolutionaries in Columbia and sentenced to prison for life.

As the novel opens, Heaston pulls off a clever escape from the Columbian prison using a bold deception and outside help from some of his men. Soon he’s back in the USA, and ex-president and Heaston nemesis Carson wants to know where he is and what he’s up to. Carson puts Jake Duffy, a brilliant young agent for the FBI’s Special Assignment Division on the job. Duffy is a hip, long-haired, rebellious new type of G-man–very much like an FBI version of CIA man Ronald Malcolm from Six Days of the Condor.

Duffy tracks Heaston to a ranch in southern California, where he and some of his old Hellions are training to hijack a train using an old coal-powered model that was previously part of a Western movie production. Duffy, ever the bold and creative agent, gets himself into the ranch using a cover as a representative of a movie production company interested in making a film on the property. He meets Heaston, with whom he has a surprising rapport, as well as his brutal henchman Branko, with whom he shares a girlfriend. He also uncovers the group’s connections to a shadowy billionaire who is apparently funding them, and learns about a priceless art collection being shipped across the country. He also meets a beautiful but rather icy art museum director and Women’s Libber named Leslie, and they strike up a hip early ’70s relationship. Meanwhile Heaston and his men get wise to Duffy’s deception and make moves of their own to deceive him.

Following some clever investigative work where Duffy oversteps his authority to learn more about the heisters’ plans and some minor romance between Duffy and two of the female characters, the novel rolls to its climax aboard trains in the desert Southwest. There’s a surprise twist toward the end as Duffy realizes what Heaston’s crew are really after, and his entire operation to entrap them falls apart. Duffy, acting independently of the Bureau, decides to make a desperate last-minute gambit to try to resolve the situation that could cost him his career and his life.

I was expecting a story centered on Heaston and his heist crew, like a Parker or Drake novel, but as it turns out it’s more of a detective story about Duffy’s efforts to figure out what Heaston’s crew is up to and stop them. This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not the type of novel I prefer, being inclined toward the point of view of the shadow operators more than the lawmen. I would have liked this novel a lot if “Mad Anthony” Heaston had been the focus of the narrative rather than Duffy, because for me he was a much more compelling character. My other criticism is that there wasn’t a lot of action or intensity. Duffy carries out his investigation a little too flippantly; there’s never a sense of real physical danger, and the violent crew does little actual violence. While this is a well-told tale with an intriguing plot, Masterson doesn’t have the Jack Higgins flair for suspense and action that could have turned this detective story into a real thriller. If you like trains, heists and crime procedurals you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise it’s not that exceptional and I can see why this novel is now obscure.

Get a copy of The Great Train Hijack here.

Maxwell’s Train

Maxwell’s Train

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.

Quiller Solitaire

Quiller Solitaire

The early 1990s were a challenging time for espionage thriller writers. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it was difficult to find adversaries that were both convincing and menacing enough to make dramatic villains. China was not yet ready for prime-time as the West’s new arch-rival, drug lords weren’t sufficiently organized or ideological, Third Reich holdovers were too long in the tooth, KGB-sponsored terrorism of previous decades had died down, Islamic terrorists hadn’t yet struck hard, Russian gangsters hadn’t yet emerged as a new bogeyman, and sinister corporate overlords struck too close to home. Was the era of the super-spy over?

Apparently not. In Quiller Solitaire, the 16th installment of the Quiller series published in 1992, author Elleston Trevor (aka Adam Hall) manages to weave a compelling mission for Quiller in the post-Cold War era that involves a Red Army Faction splinter group, ex-Stasi officers, Islamists and a terrorist plot that looks rather prescient given the Bojinka plot and the 9/11 attacks of the decade to come.

As the novel opens, Quiller is being debriefed about the death of a fellow Bureau agent who was incinerated when his car was run off the road and exploded. Quiller, who was following the agent to his rendezvous, witnessed the crash and now feels guilty about the death and obligated to avenge it. The agent had been investigating the murder of a diplomat in Berlin by suspected terrorists of the German Red Army Faction, and now Quiller is sent in to investigate both murders. Quiller learns that a group called “Nemesis” is planning a imminent terrorist attack using a commercial airliner, possibly inspired by the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, when a bomb aboard a Pan Am flight exploded over Scotland, killing 270 people. Desperate to stop the plot, Quiller goes in alone, posing as an international arms dealer and dangling a deadly carrot in front of the Nemesis leader in hopes of luring him out and destroying the organization.

Like most novels in this series, a large chunk of the narrative consists of Quiller attempting to surveil and avoid surveillance by enemy operatives, both on foot and in automobiles (he’s an expert driver), his stream-of-consciousness calculations punctuated by short, sharp hand-to-hand encounters (he’s also a lethal martial artist). Quiller novels are “spy procedurals” in much the same way Parker novels are “thief procedurals”: we get a detailed look inside the world of a very focused and disciplined shadow operator, see how he plans his operations, seizes opportunities, neutralizes threats and moves relentlessly forward to complete his missions despite the inevitable f*k-ups, plot twists and enemy actions.

Also typical for this series, in the last third of the book the action really heats up, as Quiller learns more details about the plot and takes desperate measures to stop it. Operating deep undercover, cut off from Bureau directors, he has to fly by the seat of his pants and gamble his life on an apparently suicidal mission. Things get increasingly eerie as the enemy plot begins to resemble 9/11; was Kalid Sheikh Mohammed a fan of the series? The highlight of the story for me was an airdrop into the depths of the Sahara desert by an exhausted Quiller, as he penetrates to the heart of the Nemesis operation and moves toward the cliff-hanging airborne climax.

Quiller Solitaire is one of my favorite entries in a series that is one of the masterworks of the spy fiction genre. 27 years and 16 books into the series, there is no sign of any decline in quality and the stories remain as riveting as ever, even as the Cold War that spawned Quiller is history.

Get a copy of Quiller Solitaire here.

Hijack

Hijack

I’m fascinated by shadow ops that involve hijackingskyjacking, train robberies, piracy, etc.—so when I ran across the 1969 novel Hijack by Lionel White I was immediately intrigued. The first thing I noticed was the striking cover: the image of a giant upraised pistol next  to the single word “HIJACK” emblazoned in red, with a jet airliner and a couple in erotic embrace in the foreground, is a minor masterpiece of paperback cover design. On the strength of the cover alone I might have bought the book; knowing that the author was Lionel White, one of the old masters of crime noir fiction known particularly for his heist stories—which have been called precursors to the brilliant Parker novels by Donald Westlake—I simply had to have it.

Does the story live up to the cover? Almost. As you can probably guess, it involves the hijacking of an airliner, sparked by the steamy encounter between a beautiful, money-hungry ex-stewardess called “Sis” and an ex-Air Force pilot recently returned from Vietnam nicknamed “Dude”. Sis has inside information that a particular route transports millions of dollars in small bills in its cargo hold every month, and she uses her considerable charms to convince Dude to help her get it. So Dude assembles a team and plans an audacious air-heist.

Along the way we learn the backstory of the hijackers, most of whom were ‘Nam buddies of the rogue pilot Dude. We also learn more about several of the  VIP passengers; it turns out (rather unrealistically) that on board the ill-fated flight are a French movie star, a top American scientist, a Russian defector, his CIA escort, the airline’s majority stockholder and a famous preacher. In standard crime noir fashion, at some point everything goes sideways, as the all-too-flawed characters turn a carefully laid plan into a clusterf*k of foul-ups, betrayals and desperation moves. There’s some brutal violence, loose sex, nasty rape and heavy drinking as the various players crack under pressure and revert to their primal instincts. The offbeat ending is slightly anti-climactic and felt a bit rushed, but it’s probably as good as any for this offbeat tale.

I’m a little surprised Hollywood never made a film out of this novel. Several of Lionel White’s earlier works were made into movies, but maybe by 1969 the 64 year-old author was no longer a hot property. Or maybe a story about skyjackers—in an era when revolutionaries, terrorists, criminals and crazies were hijacking airplanes with alarming frequency—hit too close to home. Apparently Quentin Tarantino is a big White fan; this would make a great Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction-style noir thriller. No matter, though; classic crime paperbacks like this one are an art form of their own and deserve to be read and enjoyed on their own terms. The biggest crime is that this book is so obscure and difficult to find; if you can track it down for a reasonable price (I paid $10), I would advise picking it up. Hijack is recommended for fans of classic crime noir and heist thrillers.