A tough railroad detective won't let a dead war hero be buried without a proper investigation of his killing.
Walter "Hook" Runyon's day gets off to a sour start when he loses his badge. The railroad bull, who's been on the lookout for pickpockets, is stopped and cuffed by a pair of uniformed cops. It's the 1940s, and the one-armed tough, with his scrappy dog, Mixer, does look more like a casualty of the Depression than an officer of the Santa Fe railroad. Once this misunderstanding is resolved and Hook is released from custody, he and Mixer rush to attend to a broken crossing signal, where they find a body hanging from the cantilever, blocking the signal arm. Most everyone sees this as mainly a nuisance, and Hook goes back to work, extending a bad-luck streak by letting a team of slick thieves get away from him. The coronoer, Dr. Broomfield, reports that while he found no identification on the corpse, he did have a Bronze Star for valor. Was the victim a war hero or a thief? Hook feels duty-bound to find out. Getting the man's name—Samuel Ash—gives his probe a solid start. Unfortunately for him, but not for the story, encounters with various miscreants complicate his search, which eventually leads him to an orphanage, where there's a hint of romance with the equally prickly Celia.
Gritty, Hemingway-reading outsider Hook makes a most engaging hero. His fourth big case (Dead Man's Tunnel, 2012, etc.) has a Dickensian feel, both in its colorful supporting cast and its numerous and welcome digressions.