Book: Red Sky Lament

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Red Sky Lament: A John Ray Horn Mystery

Author: Edward Wright
Publisher: Orion Books Limited

Los Angeles, late 1940s: As brush fires begin to eat at the dry grass in the hills rimming the San Fernando Valley, a more ominous threat is taking shape. All over Hollywood, the U.S. government is ordering people to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee as part of the crusade to uncover Communist influence in the movies.

John Ray Horn has little use for politics, but as a former B-movie cowboy star who fell into prison and disgrace, he knows a few things about outsiders. And when his ex-lover Maggie O’Dare asks him to come to the aid of an old friend of hers who has been targeted by the committee, he can’t refuse. Owen Bruder, a brilliantly talented but notoriously difficult screenwriter, is accused of having belonged to the Communist Party—a charge he strongly denies. If Horn can discover Bruder’s secret accuser, they might have a chance to clear his name. But no one is willing to talk. People are scared—perhaps more frightened than they were in the Depression, or even the war. Hollywood has become a place run by fear and suspicion, where a whisper is all it takes to smear an innocent man. As Horn’s search leads him to powerful figures in Hollywood, his investigation takes a sudden and deadly turn. He is forced to ask if those in authority are capable of murder in order to attain their political goals. And he finds that more people will die before all the secrets are laid bare.

Now there’s no mistaking the smell of fire in the air. It is just over the mountains, still unseen, but it’s coming this way…


Why is it that American writers of crime fiction so often seem to utilise a more ambitious canvas for their novels? Perhaps it’s a little unfair to make this comparison with the more parochial-seeming British crime-writing equivalents (America, after all, is a much bigger country, and lends itself more readily to a sizable panoply). But Edward Wright’s highly accomplished Red Sky Lament confines itself to Los Angeles in the 1940s and makes that city as rich and as variegated as the whole country.

Hollywood is bone dry, and threatening brush fires are starting in the San Fernando Valley. As the novel progresses, we learn that this is something of a metaphor (though not overstressed) for the ideological fires that are destroying lives, as the House Un-American Activities Committee begins to ruthlessly root out communists and those it feels are fellow travellers. John Ray Horn is an ex-cowboy star who has seen better days, and has served time for violent assault. He now makes his living by taking on jobs for another colleague who had shared his brand of low-level movie stardom, American Indian actor Mad Crow. John has asked to help a man he does not like, the writer Owen Bruder, almost certainly about to go to prison for his supposed communist sympathies. But as John reluctantly undertakes his assignment in a frightened town, a violent death suddenly intrudes…

As Clea’s Moon (for which Wright won the CWA Debut Dagger for fiction) demonstrated, there is a tremendously vivid sense of locale here: the unglamorous underbelly of Hollywood is stripped bare with a rigour that would have impressed Chandler. But Wright never forgets that character is the absolute fulcrum of a book such as this, and Red Sky Lament delivers this particular commodity with brio. —Barry Forshaw

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