Monday, May 15, 2006

Should crime fiction – written mostly for profit and entertainment – be expected to compete in the artistic arena, to strive for that abused but occasionally useful term “literature?” Probably not: the field is too skewed to make such comparisons fair. But every now and then a writer of thrillers or mysteries emerges who deserves to be compared with the best. The list of names is short, each tied to a territory or period: Charles McCarry, who has played the Cold War like a lute; Olen Steinhauer, who makes the Communist side of that war understandable; Sara Paretsky, who holds the rough, greedy heart of Chicago in her hand. You probably have one or two candidates.
To that list, I’d like to add the name of Edward Wright. Like previous novelists who wrestled with Los Angeles before and after WWII (John Fante of Ask the Dust and Horace McCoy of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? come to mind), Wright knows how to
capture the smell of something burning in the hot fields and streets of that 1940s city and turn it into the kind of art that both stirs up old memories and pierces the soul.
His books are about John Ray Horn, a former cowboy star of B-movies who played a character called Sierra Lane. The son of an unforgiving Arkansas preacher, Horn had his few moments in the film sun, before a very bad war in Italy and then a violent attack on the son of his studio owner -- which sent him to prison for two years and ended both his career and his marriage to the wrong woman. Now he lives in a shabby mountain cabin which he keeps up in lieu of rent, and earns food money collecting debts for Joseph Mad Crow, his former co-star who has started a gambling casino.
Wright’s first book about Horn CLEA'S MOON won a British award on the basis of a sample chapter and an outline. His second was published by Putnam here as WHILE I DISAPPEAR and as a paperback called “The Silver Face” in England. And RED SKY LAMENT--his best and most important political and social statement – appears to have no American publisher as yet.
Red Sky Lament starts off with a friend needing Horn’s help: Maggie O’Dare, the woman he should have married – a top stunt rider whose horse ranch high above the San Fernando Valley is a place of great comfort. Maggie wants John Ray to help a once-famous screenwriter, Owen Bruder, now unemployable and on his way to prison as an “Unfriendly Witness” before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee which is in full swing. Horn, with no particular sympathy for Communists, takes on the job of finding out who lied about the cold and unlikable Bruder to HUAC’s investigators because Maggie gives him convincing reasons.
What all of Wright’s books do is what the best fiction does: recreate a vanished world (even if the time passed is days rather than decades), then populate it with people we’d know anywhere.