Denise Vitola

Penguin / 304 pages / April 1999

ISBN: 0441006019

There is something irresistible about a dystopia… in fiction, that is. Maybe it gives people a chance for some pre-emptive nostalgia. Remember how great life was in 1999? You know, gas was less than two dollars a gallon. What a wonderful world compared to this hellhole. No matter what we have to put up with now, it’s a paradise compared to Vitola’s vision of the 21st century.

Life in the new humanitarian society is a struggle for the average person, but for the inmates of the prison camp that covers the banks of the Black River, it’s barely survivable. In this District, if the human monsters don’t get you, the bacteriological ones or the river-dwelling ones will. It’s a toss-up as to which one is worst. On top of that, someone or something has decided to eliminate the “peacekeepers” of the River Patrol. In an unusually grisly manner.

To track down something not quite human you need an investigator with the same qualities.

Call in Ty Merrick — District Marshall, top detective, and sometime werewolf — to find the killer or killers. Teamed with personal physician Gibson and partner LaRue, she is the last hope for the rapidly thinning ranks of the river cutter Delora.

Help may be on the way, but expect things to get worse and worse before they get better. Of course, that’s been the story of Merrick’s life since she picked up this nasty lycanthropy bugaboo. Someday, Gibson will finally find a way to cure her disease but, then again, the murderer might make sure no one lives to find out.

Vitola has created and developed a character who seems perfectly in keeping with the world around her. Magic, karma, and luck — mostly bad luck — are the facts of life in the world of The Red Sky File. One more werewolf here and there will hardly be noticed.

It’s a compelling read, if a bit confusing at times. If you feel like you’re missing a vital point, relax; the action and constant threat of danger will sweep you on.

Remember, this is Marshall Merrick and crew’s fourth outing, so there will be a bit of exposition — nothing you can’t handle. Vitola reminds us too frequently of Merrick’s unusual predicament, which becomes an irritation after awhile. Readers are unlikely to forget the circumstances; the insertion of the “lycanthropic” adjective is unnecessary. Merrick is a character impossible to forget.

But, the best character in the book? The huge, horrific tangle of misery that surrounds the cutter is a presence that takes control of The Red Sky File. And it deserves the attention — Vitola has drawn a horrific picture of a possible future. The prison camp, the poverty, the scrabble to survive, all build a world, not a fictional setting. A world that we can only hope never comes into being. No mutant is as terrifying as the despair of the Black River and the rotting land surrounding it. Nothing could be.