Red Sky at Night
By James W. Hall
Del Rey; 272 pages; $25

As tough as some of their characters are, mystery writers usually don't like to dwell on pain. Detectives are often shot or knocked unconscious, but rarely do their wounds receive more than a few pages' notice. Physical agony isn't fun to read or write about, especially in a novel meant as entertainment.

In his latest book, "Red Sky at Night," James W. Hall, author of "Under Cover of Daylight," tackles the issue of chronic pain managment head-on. He puts Thorn, one of the heroes of last year's "Buzz Cut," in a milieu where nearly everyone he meets deals with intense physical and emotional distress every single day.

After nearly a dozen dolphins at a neighbor's marine facility are tortured to death and their brains and spines stolen, Thorn takes it upon himself to find out who could commit such a heinous act. When he interrogates the wrong people, he is brutally attacked and left paralyzed from the waist down.

With only a slim hope of ever walking again, Thorn lets himself be admitted at a clinic run by a boyhood friend, Dr.Bean Wilson, a Vietnam vet who lost both legs in the war. Wilson's specialty is phantom pain, the baffling affliction that sometimes lingers long after the amputation of a limb.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that Wilson bears some serious grudges from his childhood and that Thorn is far from safe with him. Soon, a rogue DEA agent recruits Thorn in the search for a female undercover agent who disappeared while under Dr. Wilson's care. Even though he may be throwing away his last chance at regaining his mobility, Thorn insists that he is the only one who can rescue her.

Thorn is as prickly a character as his name would suggest, a loner who has always followed his own code of ethics. In Hall's last book, "Buzz Cut," Thorn was paired with his ex-cop buddy Sugarman, and the banter between the two of them added much comic relief to the story. In "Red Sky at Night," Sugarman and his wife are out of the country on vacation. On his own and confined to a wheelchair, Thorn makes for a mighty grim protagonist.

Hall writes eloquently, and often harrowingly, of the various manifestations of pain In describing the tribulations of Greta Masterson, the undercdover DEA agent, Hall writes: "If she'd lost her legs from the slow death of frostbite or even gangrene, her brain would have had time to redraw its diagram and there would be no phantom pain. But with sudden traumas like her fall, or a gunshot wound or car accident, the brain held on to the old map -- forever showing a continent that no longer existed. There was no way to instruct the brain to let go of its faulty script. There was nothing Greta could do at all, nothing but to lie on her bed and feel her dead flesh boiling."

This is strong stuff for a thriller, and the underlying thematic seriousness is part of what makes "Red Sky at Night" noteworthy. Unforunately, some of the plot's implausibilities undermine the author's best efforts. Thorn's long-lost friend just happens to be a brilliant pain researcher with homicidal tendencies? Somehow that seems a little too convenient.

In the end, though, "Red Sky at Night" does the job. Hall is a shrewd storyteller, with a flair for inventing off-kilter characters.He also know how to keep the level of suspense cranked high until the last page.

(c) 1997 by Michael Berry


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