Everyone’s dying to take the Super Chief in TV newsman Lehrer’s 20th novel, which, like his 19th (Oh, Johnny, 2009), is a valentine to the days when life and death seemed simpler, even if the people who lived and died weren’t.
Most Hollywood stars have long since abandoned the railroads by April 1956. But Clark Gable, who hasn’t flown on a civilian aircraft since his wife, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash in 1941, still takes the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. The King’s routine is so pat that porters who know him can schedule his dinner, his drinks and his assignations with star-struck fans with barely a syllable from him. Gable isn’t the only celebrity on the Super Chief; ex-President Harry S. Truman will board in Kansas City, setting up a memorable non-conversation between the two aging lions. But the real drama revolves around three less distinguished citizens. Hollywood producer Darwin Rinehart is already a has-been at 40. Wheelchair-bound cancer patient Otto Wheeler, a longtime regular aboard the Super Chief, is taking his very last trip to his home town of Bethel, Kan. And Dale L. Lawrence has negotiated privately with a redcap for a sleeper off the company books and a chance to speak to the former President on a matter of life or death. Before the train pulls into Los Angeles, two passengers will be dead by violence, another will be suspected as an imposter and passenger agent Charlie Sanders will find himself cast in the role of accidental detective. This isn’t Murder on the Orient Express, or North by Northwest, which gets prophetically brainstormed in the course of the journey; the plot complications flicker away with the miles. Instead it’s a humane, often gently humorous evocation of an era Lehrer obviously loves and mourns.
A pipe dream of a world in which mere mortals can’t imagine any higher honor than dying aboard the Super Chief.