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.

Blood Oath

Blood Oath

Canadian author David Morrell stormed onto the adventure thriller scene in 1972 with his debut novel First Blood, which was made into a blockbuster 1982 film starring Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo. I first encountered Morrell’s work through his 1984 effort The Brotherhood of the Rose–a riveting, action-packed Ludlumesque espionage adventure about twin assassins who are hunted by their former bosses in classic Jason Bourne fashion. I’ve read a few later novels by Morrell over the years, and while they were good, they never reached the heights of Brotherhood. I decided to try his 1982 offering, Blood Oath, to see if his earlier work was similar.

Blood Oath was the first example of what would become almost a formula for Morrell: an innocent couple find themselves caught up in a sinister conspiracy, hunted by assassins while travelling across countries trying to unmask their enemy and defeat them. His style owes much to mega-selling author Robert Ludlum: he loves the surprise attack (assassins burst through a window, a building suddenly explodes, etc.), melodramatic dialogue, outlandish twists and the “man on the run from an all-powerful, unknown enemy” plot device. Morrell’s writing is very cinematic; I suspect that he was heavily influenced by Hitchcock and always had movie deals in mind.

The novel starts slowly, as writer Peter Houston and his wife are visiting a military cemetery in France, trying to locate the grave of his father, a soldier who was killed in action in 1944. Finding no grave and no record of his father, he inquires in the local village and discovers that the man who volunteered to tend his father’s grave was a notorious traitor who assisted the Germans then disappeared at war’s end. The present-day intrigue begins soon after, as Houston’s car is run off the road by unknown assailants and his wife drowns in a river. Swearing to avenge his wife and determined to find out who is after him and why, Houston continues his investigation with a French translator named Simone, who also has a personal connection to the mystery. They quickly find themselves caught up in more intrigue and targeted by unknown assassins. Further investigation uncovers more American soldiers whose graves mysteriously disappeared, all connected to the same French traitor and mysterious entities known only as “Verlaine” and “Charon”. More people are killed, mysterious characters give ominous warnings with their dying words, and the plot twists and thickens.

The first two-thirds of this novel were pretty engaging; a 37 year-old wartime mystery, an increasingly ominous conspiracy, and two innocents trying to survive on the run while discovering the true nature of their adversary and taking revenge kept the pages turning. But things get increasingly implausible as the story goes on, and novelist Houston transforms into a full-on ninja, killing men with his bare hands, rappelling down cliffs and scaling castle walls with a monomaniacal determination to defeat the evil organization that killed his wife. The action is non-stop for the last fifty or sixty pages, as Houston and Simone infiltrate the enemy compound and learn the sinister secrets of the entity code-named “Charon”. The bad guys prove to be as cartoonish as James Bond villains, but with less charm or style, and the whole thing becomes a little absurd.

If this was a James Bond or Mack Bolan novel this would all be par for the course. But when the story starts out as a Hitchcockian mystery-thriller, then a protagonist whose knowledge of commando skills come from researching his novels suddenly starts applying it in a manner that would make Mack proud, it all becomes too much to swallow. Which is too bad, because this was an entertaining page-turner for most of the way.

One interesting detail about this novel is how it was inspired by the author’s own life. Apparently Morrell’s father was a pilot shot down over France during the war, and his body was never recovered. So this book is a kind of “what if?” story and a tribute to the father he never knew.

Overall, this was about on par with other Morrell’s other novels I’ve read, but definitely not as good as The Brotherhood of the Rose. If you like his work or the thrillers of Robert Ludlum and Jack Higgins, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Get a copy of Blood Oath here.