DEATH RIDES THE ZEPHYR by Janet Dawson

Palo Alto:  Perseverance Press, 2013. $15.95 


For those seeking a traditional, historical mystery, Janet Dawson’s second stand alone novel does not fit the bill. It is really a slice-of-life novel, the life depicted here that of the California Zephyr and its most interesting crew member, the Zephyrette. 

Jill McLeod is the only female crew member aboard the California Zephyr when it leaves Oakland, California for Chicago, Illinois at Christmas 1952. She is the Zephyrette, the hostess who greets passengers, sees to their needs and comforts, and provides information about the train itself and the scenic or historical territory through which the train passes. These can be seen particularly well in the Vista Domes aboard the train. (Dawson handles these miniature travelogues so deftly readers are left wanting more.) If anything untoward happens, Miss McLeod, along with the conductor, will handle the situation. The conductors, like many of the passengers, change throughout the journey. Miss McLeod stays with the train for its entire journey. It is in her capacity as Zephyrette she does most of her sleuthing--by observing the passengers.

Pleasant and competent, Jill McLeod is delighted when an acquaintance, the nuclear physics professor at UC-Berkeley of her late fiancé, boards the trains, bound for a conference in Chicago. He, however, is less than pleased when he finds both his ex-wife, with her new husband, and his ex-mistress, chaperoning a newly orphaned child, aboard the train. The presence of the ex-mistress disconcerts more people than just the professor; her behavior--drinking and poker-playing, something she teaches the children on the train--marks her as an unsuitable chaperone. Because it is Christmas, many families are traveling home with children; Miss McLeod takes them in hand by providing both a scavenger hunt and a Christmas party for them. Two of the children belong to a couple who met at Los Alamos. Other passengers to round out the life of the Zephyr on this journey include a married man traveling as a bachelor, an unpleasant female who disparages everyone, particularly the children, a young veteran and his grandfather, an old cowboy who is a convict and an alcoholic, and a thief who is as disagreeable as a sore throat.

Dawson has a good feel for the period, including the public formality amongst the passengers, between the passengers and the crew, and amongst the crew, and the racial bigotry aimed at the porters. That very formality, however, distances the reader from the characters. In turn, that makes the cavalcade of characters more difficult to distinguish. There are too many characters to allow much description, let alone development. It becomes difficult to keep track of characters and their importance--or lack thereof--to the story. I have to confess thatI got confused by the myriad of characters, particularly as they embarked and disembarked the train.

This lack of characterization impedes the development of the mystery story, except in the most superficial way. A set of Soviet agents are trying to avoid being recognized and arrested. A murder is committed.  

The Rosenberg case forms part of the background of the case. Dawson assumes her audience possesses more knowledge of the Rosenbergs than it probably does. She gives the case very little context except a quick consensus that everybody thinks the Rosenbergs are guilty. Not so fast--the case was highly controversial. Many considered it a travesty and provoked by anti-Semitism. The trial certainly heightened the era’s intense anti-Communism, helpfully ginned up by Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts. Dawson gives absolutely no indication of that hysteria; thus, she trivializes the shocking trial, something Jean-Paul Sartre compared to France’s Dreyfus case.

Espionage at Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project, during World War II, serves as something of a prequel to Dawson’s story. Nuclear secrets were leaking to the Soviets. Initially, the blame went to J. Robert Oppenheimer, but Klaus Fuchs, another nuclear physicist, was the culprit. Recruited by the Soviets during the war, he and his female handler went from Britain (U.S. allies on the project along with the Canadians) to Columbia University in 1943 and then Los Alamos in 1944 to work on the Manhattan Project. Fuchs’s courier was Harry Gold, who also conveyed information from Daniel Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and a machinist at Los Alamos. Greenglass shopped his sister to the government; for state’s evidence, he only spent time in prison. Gold was a key witness at the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were tried and convicted in 1951 of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets; they were not executed until 1953. British intelligence caught up with Fuchs, who was convicted in 1950 of espionage in a British court. Sentenced to fourteen years in prison; he served nine and was stripped of his British citizenship.

Almost none of this information makes it into the novel. If one does not know about spying at Los Alamos, the urgency of the race for the hydrogen bomb, or the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950s, then Dawson’s plot neither makes much sense nor does it have much dramatic intensity. 

An easy read, this novel is for train aficionados or “railfans” as Dawson calls them. The majority of the narrative concerns the train, its passengers’s lives, its journey. There is a little espionage, a little mystery thrown in for titillation. Those looking for a proper “whodunnit” or spy caper will be disappointed.

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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