Christopher Hyde appeared on the Canadian literary scene in 1979 with The Wave, a novel about nuclear disaster on the Columbia River system which was so plausible that it created a minor sensation among antinuclear activists. But even after he had completed his second book, The Icarus Seal, the former CBC researcher admitted that his fact-finding skills exceeded his ability to develop characters. Maxwell’s Train, his sixth novel, is his best attempt yet to combine the detail for which he is known with a style that is fast-paced and compelling. Still, even if Hyde has reached the level of most bestselling thriller writers, in the end his bloodless characters and embarrassingly clichéd dialogue encumber the plot.
Maxwell’s Train is a story within a story, parts of it narrated by the hero, Harry Maxwell, to a journalist from Playboy. Maxwell, a railroad worker, and Daniel Pendergast, a failed artist in his late 30s, are old friends and fast becoming has-beens. Says Harry to Daniel: “You were going to be the next Picasso and I was going to be a combination of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jack Kerouac.” As it is, the most they have ever done successfully is import cocaine from South America. But when Maxwell decides to “blow it with a bang” by robbing a night train carrying $28 million, he is unaware that a band of European terrorists is planning to make its mark in the United States by doing the same. The plot is littered with recent thriller stereotypes. The terrorist leader is a “darkly beautiful” and “bitterly hard” veteran of Germany’s ultraleftist Baader-Meinhof gang, addicted to seducing men while uttering such lines as “Wisdom has nothing to do with desire.”
All the characters meet and mingle in one of the greatest thriller clichés of all, the train ride into danger. The terrorists hijack the night express from Washington, then link it to a passenger train in Montreal and run it into the wilds of British Columbia. Hyde renders the horrors of booby-trapped exploding doors and slit throats by giving his characters such worn-out phrases as “dollars to doughnuts” and “stinking to high heaven.” His hero, Maxwell, even describes the crowded, panic-stricken trainload as “something out of a Fellini nightmare.”
Still, Hyde moves the action swiftly and with a sharp thriller writer’s eye for convincing detail. He describes the inner workings of railroads and the mentality of terrorism and, in one particularly chilling excursion, explores the insidious possibilities of terrorists using anthrax bacteria. In the end, after stealing the $28 million and vanquishing the terrorists, Maxwell hides away on a remote tropical island, where he contemplates the next logical step—an autobiography and a feature film. Predictably enough, Hyde’s hero ends up being both rich and famous, with his adventures chronicled in Time, Rolling Stone and Playboy. The only stereotype missing is Hyde’s hero riding off into a glowing
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