Thursday, August 07, 2008

Red Sky In Morning

It's fitting for two reasons that Max Allan Collins (here writing as Patrick Culhane) should quote Herman Wouk at the start of his new novel Red Sky In Morning.

Wouk's quote concerns his Naval service in WW11 for one thing and it is Naval service and the Second World that is the heart of this story.

And quoting Wouk, the greatest popular storyteller of his time, signals the reader that this is among the most ambitious novels Collins has written to date. Red Sky is not a crime novel. It is a big riveting mainstream novel that to includes a crime. It is very much in the traditon of Herman Wouk.

Ensign Peter Maxwell is called up from the reserves just after Pearl Harbor and ends up, given his talents, leading the Navy choir. But Maxwell wants to be in the real war and manages to get aboard an ammunition ship, a perilous asignment he's happy to have. Especially since the other members of his musical quartet have joined him.

The USS Liberty Hill is stationed at San Francisco's Port Chicago and quickly ships out for a shakedown cruise. It is here we meet Lt. Commander John Jacob Edgar, the type of man who leads by intimidating rather than inspiring. He is especially contemptuous of junior officers and the African-Americans aboard the ship.

The sweep of the story keeps you turning pages as the young ensign confronts an explosion, a storm and the murders of some of his quartet members. But as good as Collins is at keeping the story compelling, he also gives the reader a gripping sense of the war as seen from a Naval ship and the fears and prejudices of its crew. Like Wouk, Collins works in a broad historical context, giving you popular culture images of the time as well as the political climate in which the war was fought. He makes some telling and surprising points about the war that rarely get mentioned in ther glossy movies about that time.

Collins dedicates the novel to his father, who was not unlike ensign Maxwell, and you can feel the special passion that gives the book. This is a major novel, rich with drama, humor, history and real poignance as Collins reveals the best and worst in the human heart..

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