End of the Line by Bert and Dolores Hitchens - book review

End of the Line by Bert and Dolores Hitchens
End of the Line by Bert and Dolores Hitchens
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The suspicious actions of a former conductor involved in a deadly train crash six years earlier lead Los Angeles railroad ‘bulls’ John Farrel and Calvin Saunders to revisit the cold case and uncover the truth behind the shocking accident that claimed the lives of sixteen passengers.

Born Julia Clara Catherine Dolores Robbins, prolific American novelist and playwright Dolores Hitchens began her career as a hospital nurse, and then a teacher, before becoming a successful professional writer.

From 1938 until her death in 1973, she published forty books, utilising four nom-de-plumes. Her suspense novel The Watcher was adapted for the television series Thriller in 1960, and Jean-Luc Godard adapted her novel Fool’s Gold into the 1964 film Band of Outsiders.

End of the Line, first published by Doubleday in 1957 and newly reprinted as a mass market Black Gat Books edition from Stark House, is the third in a series of five novels she co-wrote with her second husband, Hubert Allen ‘Bert’ Hitchens, who was a railroad investigating officer. All the books in the series feature the special agents of a railroad’s Los Angeles division, including regular character John Farrel, a veteran detective with an alcohol problem.

Here, the wizened Farrel, a down-at-heel boozehound who lives in a boarding house, is teamed up with the inexperienced but enthusiastic investigator Calvin Saunders, an athletic, fastidious young man who drives a Chevy convertible.

Former railroad bull (guard), now department chief, Ryerson, ‘a bear of a man,’ wants the pair to re-examine the Lobo Tunnel wreck, an unsolved case that resulted in sixteen deaths. The train had hit two handcars loaded with ties and rock, run into the tunnel far enough to be out of sight, but no culprit or motive was established.

The conductor of that Western Shores Limited train, Parmenter, ‘skipped off to Mexico’ not long after he gave testimony, and death and injury claims were settled, only to be incarcerated for five years in the Islas Marías Federal Prison for an unrelated crime.

Immediately following his release, Parmenter telephones a retired conductor named Walls and arranges to meet him in Chula Vista, where Walls now resides. The curious rendezvous prompts Ryerson, who was always suspicious of Parmenter, to have Farrel and Saunders question the man and explore his connection with the scene of the wreck, as well as speak with the survivors and the families and relatives who received sizable personal injury claims.

As the cinder dicks (railroad police) delve deeper into the case, the more they wonder about the motives of the conductor and the true extent of the survivor’s injuries. Did the crash give Parmenter a chance to cover up a theft, hence his disappearance overseas? Was the ‘genius’ physicist truly blinded in the accident? Did the Russian dancer who was about to sign a Hollywood movie contract really lose the use of her legs? Could Parmenter be planning some crazy repetition of the Lobo disaster?

Suspenseful and methodical, End of the Line is a worthwhile mystery with a solid plot that is helped along by the understated rivalry between the two well-defined detectives, both of whom try to best each other throughout the course of their investigation. Farrel is envious of his partner’s youth, stamina and eye for detail, and Saunders craves his colleague’s praise and approval, wanting ‘the old hand to tell him he’d done well.’

Pursuing clues to the town of Sagebloom, the place where the crash took place, the pair go undercover as section hands, eventually working together like a well-oiled team and following the intriguing tale to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

(Stark House Press, £9.95, paperback)