Friday, November 7, 2008

Red Sky in Morning: a novel of World War II by Max Allan Collins writing as Patrick Culhane

Max Allan Collins's second mainstream novel under the Patrick Culhane byline, Red Sky in Morning, is a marked improvement over the first, Black Hats. Once again the action takes place in the past, but this time all the characters are fictitious, with only mentions of famous personalities — and a much closer connection to the author's own past.

Ensign Peter Maxwell has had it easy during his stint in the U.S. Navy, spending his days heading the chorus and spending his nights with his pretty wife, but there's a war going on around him, and damned if he doesn't want to be part of it. So, the newly promoted Lieutenant Maxwell and his best friends — known collectively as the Fantail Four, a vocal quartet best known for their Ink Spots impression — sign up for duty aboard the U.S.S. Liberty Hill Victory, an ammunition ship with an all-"colored" crew and an openly racist captain. (Liberty Hill is Maxwell's hometown, and he sees this as an omen.)

Slowly, the Four realize they've put themselves into a potentially life-threatening situation — a point the nearby Port Chicago disaster drives home — but they decide to do what they can to make it work, including teaching the mostly illiterate crew how to read (especially the "no smoking" signs posted next to the explosives).

But when the white X.O. (executive officer) and then a black crewmember are murdered, Maxwell is promoted to the post, then relieved of his duties to investigate the crime. He makes his first executive decision by choosing another black crewmember (and fellow jazz enthusiast), Seaman Ulysses Grant Washington — known as "Sarge" from his years as a Chicago homicide detective — to accompany him on interrogations, and to essentially run the investigation.

The murder mystery is well plotted and satisfyingly solved, but the real appeal of Red Sky in Morning lies in the characters' relationships and in how Culhane/Collins shows them realistically, not shying away from popular conceptions (and epithets) of the era. This way, we are offered a complete portrait of a time and place that is likely not very familiar even to World War II aficionados.

Red Sky in Morning was inspired by stories Collins's father (the book is dedicated to him) told him of his own time in the Navy, making this his most personal book yet. The author states that the book is mostly fictional, but that several details are lifted from those reminiscences.

The rest came from Collins's imagination and his usual exhaustive research of the setting and period. He and co-author/research associate Matthew V. Clemens (see My Lolita Complex) plotted the story together, much like they did for Collins's CSI novels. With Red Sky in Morning, Culhane/Collins once again showcases his inimitable skill at making a time period come alive. I for one am glad that Max Allan Collins, Sr., shared his experiences with his son, so that he could in turn share them with us.

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