cover image Red Sky at Night

Red Sky at Night

James W. Hall. Delacorte Press, $23.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-385-31638-5

When an author lays waste to his usual protagonist, it's often to add snap to an aging series. The ploy can work, as when Robert B. Parker took Spenser to near-death in the recent Small Vices. More often it doesn't, as in Hall's crippling of his dour amateur sleuth Thorn (Buzz Cut, etc.) in this awkward outing. The novel begins with the decapitation of 11 dolphins at a Florida Keys research center and diabolical experimentation in controlling the phantom pain of maimed vets at a Keys V.A. clinic. Both crimes are masterminded by the clinic's director, Bean Wilson Jr., once Thorn's boyhood friend but now his enemy for a misperceived wrong. When Thorn is on the verge of discovering that Bean is harvesting dolphin endorphins for his work and using vets as guinea pigs, Bean orders an attack on his former buddy that puts Thorn in a wheelchair, maybe forever. Unusual for Hall, the backdrops and secondary characters form the novel's strong suit. There's a convincingly tortured romance between Thorn and a young woman; the crippled vets Thorn encounters at Bean's clinic are sculpted in poignant cameos; Bean is backed by two memorably eccentric assistant villains. Bean himself, however, is a cartoon of a mad doctor. And while the drama of Thorn's newly challenged life is meant to drive the novel, the psychological digging is superficial, and few readers will doubt Thorn's eventual fate. By the time he and Bean engage in a histrionic showdown, each speechifying at length as the ship they're on sinks beneath them, most will conclude that they are not the only ones who are close to being all wet. Major ad/promo; author tour. (July)