This is the kind of novel that reminds you just how good pulp fiction can be. Sure it’s fast, thrilling and well plotted, a long afternoon read, but End of the Line also has genuine depth and originality. Written in spare prose, to the rhythm of a train picking up speed as it leaves the station, this is a cracking mystery story. But there’s a real psychological depth to the relationship between the main protagonists; the detectives, (bulls), investigating the Lobo Tunnel train crash. This is a fascinating look at the two partners who have very little in common, they are working the case but not always in tandem. First published in 1957, End of the Line elevates the niche art of the railroad mystery into an influential and engaging mainstream crime novel.
The streamliner is about two hours out of LA heading into the Lobo Tunnel, the engineer realises something is wrong but by that time: “It was too late. On sixty-four wheels Death roared into Lobo Tunnel, and made a noise that men would hear for years.”
John Farrel is a seasoned old pro, a veteran railway bull, a loner, still living in the boarding house of a brakeman’s widow. He gets up in the morning and stashes an empty bottle, he doesn’t want Mrs Bellows turning it up on one of her cleaning sprees. His partner Calvin Saunders, is young, fresh and keen and maybe he has designs on pretty Betty Halloran, who moved in across the hall at his boarding house at the other end of town.
The railroad bulls work out of the downtown LA office of the Special Agent. This morning, something is going on, the boss, Ryerson, wants to see Farrel and Saunders when they arrive. A case that went cold a long time ago has resurfaced, nobody ever shelves an unsolved involving deaths on the rails. Six years earlier someone put an obstacle on the track in the Lobo Tunnel, when the train derailed sixteen people were killed. Suspicion fell on one of the guards, Parmenter, who scarpered to Mexico to live the highlife just after the settlement pay-outs for the victims were agreed.
Parmenter fell foul of the law south of the border and has only just been released from prison to head back north. He has contacted an old railway buddy, Wall, and Ryerson wants to re-interview him and re-investigate the crash. Saunders can’t see anything in the file that warrants a fresh look more over he doesn’t trust his partner:
“He decided that Farrel had been all through this before; he was like an old horse who bows to a familiar yoke. Hell, Saunders thought suddenly, he’s stale. He’s plodding in a rut. He’ll never find anything new in this thing; Why can’t the chief see it?”
An engineer, Eric Versprelle, recently fired was seen near the scene after the accident. The bulls set out to find Parmenter and take a fresh look at the crash survivors who got a pay-out, are they genuine victims? Farrel and Saunders find out that the eighteen year old daughter of Parmenter has gone missing, why is she running? There’s a confession in Mexico that muddies the waters and Farrel and Saunders are not getting on but are they getting closer to finally solving the Lobo Tunnel mystery?
I really enjoyed the story and the setting but the relationship between the two detectives Farrel and Saunders deserves a special mention. The mistrust, the grudging respect, the sneaky drinks for Farrel, the distain of Saunders are all excellently portrayed, it is one of the best buddy/tense partnerships I’ve read in a long time.
The details of the authors lives are at times sketchy, particularly Bert. What is known is that Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens was born in 1907 and died in 1973, from the late thirties on she was a prolific thriller writer, her other pen names are D.B. Olsen, Dolan Birkley and Noel Burke. Dolores married her second husband, Hubert Allen “Bert” Hitchens, in the early forties and the pair produced five railway mysteries between 1957 – 1964. Bert was a railway detective, Dolores already an experienced writer. I admit that what follows is speculation on my part, although not uneducated guess work. My assumption is that Dolores was the writer, that she saw tremendous scope for mysteries in the stories Bert brought home from work. I have no doubt Bert had many insights into railroad life but also the character of the bulls (detectives) and how their investigations are carried out. However, the driver for this literary collaboration was Dolores, the style and plotting, the talent for noir and hardboiled dialogue belong to Dolores. Dolores wrote stand alone novels and series under her various pen names that show how talented she really was.
Stark House do a fine job in keeping pulp and hardboiled alive and well and for bringing it to new generations. Black Gat Books, an imprint of Stark House, featuring some of the past masters of crime fiction; writers who would otherwise slip into obscurity. This is much deserved attention and this is volume 17 in the series if you have a mind to check out some of the others. I was knocked out by how good End of the Line is. It takes us into a world of railways, of sounds and smells that conjure up a time past. This is just damn good writing. A satisfying mystery, bags of fun and a little work out for the grey cells, too.
Paul Burke 4/4
End of the Line by Bert and Dolores Hitchens
Stark House Press 9781944520571 pbk Nov 2018