The Return of the Railroad Bull: A Conversation with Sheldon Russell
Lowestoft Chronicle interview by Nicholas Litchfield (December, 2017)
Versatile, award-winning novelist Sheldon Russell is the author of ten published works of fiction, ranging from American frontier novels and tales of the Oklahoma Land Rush, to postwar mysteries and a fictional account of Francisco Vázquez Coronado’s 1540s North American expedition. A finalist for Best Original Paperback in the 2001 Western Writers of America, Inc., Spur Awards competition, and winner of the Langum Prize for Excellence in American Historical Fiction,
Russell is best known for his critically acclaimed Hook Runyon historical mystery series.
His credible, hardboiled central character, a one-armed railroad bull named Hook, and colorful, fully fleshed supporting cast have earned him starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Newspapers like The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Denver Post have praised him for his thrilling action, suspenseful storylines, historical background details, and insights into railroad life. Two of the books in the series were chosen as finalists for the Oklahoma Book Award competition, and one was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the six best mysteries of the year.
After 2013’s The Hanging of Samuel Ash, the positively reviewed fourth Hook mystery, the series came to an unexpected halt. Now, at long last, the railroad bull has returned, and the latest mystery, his most challenging to date, proves to be his best adventure yet.
In an exclusive interview with Lowestoft Chronicle, Russell discusses his new Hook Runyon novel and some of the supporting characters, as well as several of his previous books and works in progress.
Lowestoft Chronicle (LC): In the latest Hook Runyon Mystery, The Bridge Troll Murders, Hook goes undercover as a hobo in an effort to catch a serial killer preying on freighthopping vagrants. The Insane Train (book #2) deservedly earned glowing reviews from major review sites, including The New York Times, but I think this fifth series entry may well be the standout book in the series. Did the novel take shape from the initial idea of a serial killer or stem from a desire to send Hook far beyond Oklahoma and experience again his old life as a train-hopping vagrant?
Sheldon Russell (SR): My wife is a sculptor, and we had restored an old 1893 building, converting it into a studio and gallery with a Victorian apartment on the upper floor. The old commercial building was only yards from the railroad tracks, and trains roared by day and night. Shortly after we moved in, a number of random and brutal killings took place across the U.S, all within walking distance of the tracks. The murderer was eventually dubbed the railway killer by the press. Trains would often stop at the crossing below our window at night, and I remember lying there, wondering whether or not the killer might be getting off the train that very moment. That feeling of vulnerability was the impetus for The Bridge Troll Murders. Only after I was into the book did I realize that it was, in large part, the randomness of the crimes that was so terrifying and made capture so difficult. The only plausible thing left to do was to set a trap. Who better for bait than an old hobo like Hook Runyon?
LC: In the book, you allow the reader a fascinating peek at hobo culture, exploring things like Hobo Code of Ethics and hobo hieroglyphics. And through Hook, we get a sense of what established hobo “jungles” were like and some of the common perils of riding the rails (such as being trapped in boxcars). How extensive was your research into the language, attitudes, and lifestyle of traveling vagrants in the postwar period?
SR: I do a fair amount of research and rather enjoy it. In fact, I’ve had to limit how much I do in order to have time to write. I’m forever looking at systems maps to determine what rail lines go where and when they were built. Then there’s the whole business of engine types and what was running when and how many drive wheels they had, and don’t forget the rail hobbyist, who pride themselves on railroad minutiae.
The hobo communication system that you speak of has been in existence for decades, though I do find variations from one railroad to the next and in different parts of the country. Most of the signs and symbols hoboes left behind communicated where the safe houses were, who would give out good food, even what houses should be avoided. I discovered along the way any number of railroad slang lists, compiled in large part by railroaders themselves, they being renowned for their use of nicknames for just about everything. While I had great fun with this, I did learn to curb myself in order to avoid having to construct cumbersome glossaries.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I grew up in a railroad town, that my father was a machinist for the Santa Fe, and that our school song was I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. So, I could hardly have avoided any of it, even if I had wanted. I am most grateful for having known these men and for being exposed to their wisdom and humor.
LC: One of the many enjoyable things about this novel is the reappearance of moonshiner Runt Wallace, a character from the first Hook Runyon mystery. You had mentioned in our previous interview in 2014 that Runt would return, but, nevertheless, when he does appear it’s rather unexpected. Why did you decide to impose significant changes to his life and why relocate him? Will he emerge again in future books?
SR: I hadn’t necessarily planned on bringing Runt back so soon, but my readers had different ideas. And the truth is that I missed him myself. There is an innocence about Runt, I think, that softens the hardness of the times and the tougher side of Hook as well. It’s great fun playing them off each other, and it’s through their repartee that the depth of their relationship is best revealed. Runt’s life-changes reflect what had happened to so many families after the war, particularly in Oklahoma, where farms had failed and so many men had been lost to the war. New and more liberal laws had decimated moonshining as a profitable business, leaving Runt to struggle for a living. The notion of Hook and Runt meeting up on the road appealed to me. Coincidence can be delightful in a story, if not abused. Runt’s my kind of guy, and I expect to see him again in the future.
LC: Ria Wolfe, a Boston University Ph.D. student studying forensic psychology, serves as a highly effective character in the book, not solely studying crime scenes to develop a criminal profile, but also analyzing Hook and his methods. In The Yard Dog, you mention that Hook was “neither trained for nor inclined to law enforcement” but “discovered a propensity for the work.” How would you describe Hook’s methods? How did he become a Santa Fe bull?
SR: Under different circumstances, Hook most likely would not have been hired as a Santa Fe bull. But, having lost an arm, he was ineligible for the draft during the war, and the railroad was desperate for men. The fact that he was a well-seasoned hobo was, ironically, an asset when it came to enforcing the law on the rails. Hook is infinitely logical and practical in his approach to solving crime. He does what works and has little patience for contemplating why criminals behave as they do. He’s quick to drop the hat and does not abide fools. His past experiences as a hobo serve him well in the rough and tumble world of railroad bulls. While honest and trustworthy for the most part, he is not above bending the rules from time to time and has an acquired taste for busthead liquor and book collecting.
LC: The book collecting aspect is an interesting trait of Hook’s. As you point out in The Bridge Troll Murders, it has gone beyond a passion and now verges on an obsession. Hook collects everything from fiction and biographies to travel and religious books, although he doesn’t read everything he buys. He values signed first editions over anything else, and even when ravenously hungry he would rather choose a first edition book over a meal. First of all, why did you make him a book fanatic? And why the decision not to narrow his reading interests?
SR: I’m a believer in the notion that intelligence is where you find it, and I wanted to demonstrate this by showing Hook’s innate cleverness and curiosity about the world this way. For him to pursue knowledge through academic pursuit struck me as contrary to who he is and the way that he lives. Collecting books, however, is concrete. It gives him not only intellectual stimulation but has monetary value as well, which makes it an okay thing for him to do.
Ria’s intelligence, which is formal, research-based, and equally formidable, provides a handy counterbalance and contrast.
LC: In this latest book, Hook has been promoted to assistant division supervisor of security. Eddie Preston, the division supervisor out of Chicago, has little respect for Hook and tried to prevent him being hired in the first place. Why did you decide to promote Hook? Will this new responsibility have an impact in later books?
SR: Hook’s boss, Eddie Preston, has reluctantly offered the job because he found himself in a manpower bind. While Hook has considered taking the promotion, he is clearly not suited for a desk job. On top of that, in the meantime, he’s managed to burn up half the countryside and a perfectly good railroad bridge. I’m thinking Eddie might reconsider the offer. If he doesn’t, Hook probably will.
LC: Typically, how long does it take you to write a Hook mystery? Are you working from an outline and are they written from beginning to end?
SR: A year, if all goes well and the world lets me. Under the best of circumstances, I like a few months for a manuscript to cool off before I begin my revisions. There’s just nothing like time to bring real objectivity to the task. I do a rough outline of the entire manuscript first to get a general direction and an idea for the conclusion. To me, all stories are journeys. Once I know what the journey is, I can then outline each chapter before I write it, some of it little more than brainstorming. If I come up with a better idea while writing, out it goes. Nothing or no one is sacred. I write from beginning to end, often rewriting the first chapter after I’m finished. I find this helps me clear out back-story and begin the tale where it counts.
LC: Am I correct in thinking The Bridge Troll Murders was written in 2013? I recall you once saying that you had an attic full of unpublished novels, suggesting that you are a productive writer. Have you been working on numerous Hook mysteries during the past three years or concentrating on different projects?
SR: Finished, in part at that time, as I recall, though I’ve slept since then. I usually have several projects going at once. Sometimes I’ll set a manuscript aside if I come up against a problem that I can’t solve. I’m a big believer in sleeping on things and letting the subconscious do its business. I’ve been working on a book that is known paradoxically as autobiographical fiction. It has a working title of A Particular Madness. It’s not an easy book to write, since I have to take a pretty hard look at myself. Sometimes there are things I’d rather not see.
LC: In our previous interview, you mentioned you were working on several other novels (The Woodcutter, Blood Rights, and Shrink Wrapped). Did you complete those novels, and are you actively seeking publication for them?
RS: These books are complete, having undergone finite revisions and some title changes. They represent my interests in historic frontier subjects and psychological thrillers. All are currently out and about looking for a way to publication. I do not have a literary agent, do not live in the cultural center of the world, and am better equipped to write than I am to agent.
LC: You had great success a number of years ago with some thrilling and moving American frontier novels featuring the U.S. Cavalry doctor McReynolds. His mixed-blood son Creed later surfaced as one of your characters. Why did you continue the McReynolds saga? Are there other periods in history you’re interested in writing about?
RS: I needed to bring Creed back to the frontier as an educated man in the second book, not only to demonstrate his success as a modern man but also to show how his earlier world had changed. I wanted this kind of closure for him and for the readers of the saga.
My parents were poor Okies during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl days of the thirties. I think I have some insight into those times and have always wanted to write about that period. Steinbeck is pretty tough competition, however.
LC: Rumor has it the next Hook adventure might be published as early as fall of 2018. Is the novel completed and are you able to talk about it?
SR: While I don’t control the publishing schedule, it is my understanding that there may well be a 2018 Hook book. The manuscript is in rough draft form and with a working title of Evil Rides A Train. After the war, the world was in chaos and bursting with war orphans. Nowhere was this more evident than in Germany and Poland. With no place else to go after the war, many of these orphans were put in the same concentration camps where their parents had been killed. Hook is charged with moving these orphans across country and must struggle with the forces of good and evil.
About the Author
During his academic career, Dr. Sheldon Russell authored twenty-five professional articles and co-authored the text, An Interdisciplinary Approach to Reading and Mathematics. He retired as Professor Emeritus from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2000. He has had ten novels published: Empire, a suspense novel; two historic frontier novels, The Savage Trail and Requiem at Dawn; Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush; The Dig: In Search of Coronado’s Treasure; and the Hook Runyon mystery series (The Yard Dog, The Insane Train, Dead Man’s Tunnel, The Hanging of Samuel Ash, and The Bridge Troll Murders).
He and his wife currently reside on their home ranch in northwestern Oklahoma, where they both work daily at their respective crafts. Russell enjoys reading, gardening, and collecting his favorite books.
About the Interviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of Lowestoft Chronicle. He is a regular book reviewer for the Colorado Review and his book reviews for the Lancashire Post are syndicated to 25 newspapers across the UK. Website: www.nicholaslitchfield.com