You haven't seen a P.I. like this one, I'll bet. He has a Mickey Mouse phone in his office, drinks his coffee out of a Spider-Man mug, quotes Jiminy Cricket and he claims he wants to be Peter Pan. And he's been known to drive a bright yellow 1966 Corvette. Oh, and he's named after the King, just in case you don't remember him. He's ELVIS COLE. He's the "World's Greatest Detective."
No, really. Just ask him...
But before you call for the guys in the white coats, rest assured he's not quite the flake he seems to be. He packs a Dan Wesson .38 in a shoulder rig, has dabbled in more than one of the martial arts, and has survived the Vietnam war, not to mention several years as a private detective in Hollywood with an office right near the Musso and Frank Grill, where Chandler used to hang out. He's earned a rep as a tough, conscientious, albeit somewhat unorthodox investigator. Very much an eye for the nineties and beyond, a sort of Spenser via Disneyland, a comparison Crais is perfectly at ease with. Elvis is, in fact, as much a smartass as his beantown contemporary and, like Spenser, he's in love with the city he lives in. He's also prone to pondering the moral ambiguities and hypocrisies of our times, valiantly striving to do the right thing. Elvis seems particularly concerned with abused and battered women and children. All very chivalric. Spenser, not to mention Marlowe, would be proud. (In fact, Robert Crais' contribution, "The Man Who Knew Dick Bong," was one of the highlights of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, a 1988 collection of Marlowe stories by contemporary writers.)
And like Spenser, Elvis has a partner who just happens to be a bit bigger, tougher and more at home with the use of violence and not too troubled by attacks of conscience. His so-called "sociopathic sidekick", Joe Pike, is an ex-Marine and part-time mercenary and gunshop owner. He's also a lot quieter than the usually running-off-at-the-mouth Elvis. According to Joe, Clint Eastwood talks too much. Together Cole and Pike make quite a team.
An excellent series, that has steadily improved. Unlike Spenser, Elvis has evolved over the series. Some of the glibness been toned down, allowing us to see the man underneath, and 1999's L.A. Requiem took it all up a giant notch and was something of a watershed for Crais, as a writer. In that one, Crais created a world. And a new way to tell us about it.
You could hear the chains snapping...
Oh, he'd already begun to expand and deepen the supporting cast of characters by then. Pike, whom Crais had originally planned to bump off at the end of The Monkey's Raincoat, had stuck around and become more of a full-fledged partner than a mere sidekick. The same went for Lou Poitras, the gruff detective-lieutenant in charge of the Hollywood homicide bureau. And of course Lucy Chenier, the sweet-faced New Orleans-based lawyer who was gradually worming her way into our hero's heart. Even the nameless feral cat who haunted the hills behind Elvis' home was becoming something of a regular.
Likewise, Crais had already begun to experiment with shifting points-of-view. Still, there wasn't much in those early books that prepared readers for L.A. Requiem's sprawling, multiple storylines and muscularity. Crais dropped most of the glib wisecracks and quirkiness and headed straight for the jugular, straddling genre boundaries, merging the private detective novel, the police procedural and the action thriller in a dark, engrossing tale of murder, betrayal, corruption, child abuse and the painful secrets that lie buried in the human heart. It was no longer the Elvis Cole show -- in fact, much of the action focused on his partner: taciturn Pike, he of the 24/7 shades and the always forward-pointing arrow tattoos.
It was a big powerful book that tears into the heart of darkness that lies at the core of Joe Pike, and is simply one of the best P.I. novels of the decade.
In these days of cast-of-thousands mega-selling thrillers like Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, itís hard to remember how brave and new L.A. Requiem seemed at the time, particularly in the hard-boiled detective genre.
But for Crais, it was "incredibly liberating." As he puts it, "The first four or five Elvis Coles were of a kind. They were written in the usual first-person private eye style... and then I began to shake things up a little bit. In Sunset Express, I broke the point of view for the first time and got away with it. I began looking for other ways to do what I was doing. L.A. Requiem was an extremely experimental book for me to write, and there were plenty of mornings I worried that my readers wouldnít go for it."
Suffice it to say they went for it.
In the time since, Crais has used the approach on a string of best-selling and critically acclaimed novels, both standalone thrillers and books featuring Elvis and, increasingly, Pike.
But Crais sees all his books as part of "one big series." Carol Starkey, first introduced in the standalone Demolition Angel (2000) pops up in The Forgotten Man (2005) with a mad crush on Elvis (she refers to Lucy at one point as "Lady Puffinstuff Southern Belle"). At one point in the Joe Pike book The Watchman (2007), to avoid being spotted, Pike leaves his beloved red Jeep Cherokee at a gas station. The Cherokee is promptly stolen by bank robber Max Holman in The Two Minute Rule (2006). Another regular, LA Coroner John Chen, the twitchy, horny string bean and would-be ladies man with a bad case of hero worship for Pike, has become a sort of running gag, a much-needed at times burst of comic relief in several of the books.
But if anyone can juggle this ever-expanding cast, it's Crais. Before turning to novels, Crais wrote for television, most notably for such character-heavy and character-driven shows as Hill Street Blues (for which he received an Emmy nomination), Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice, Quincy, M.E. and The Equalizer.
So far, the Elvis Cole series has already nabbed an Edgar, an Anthony, a Macavity, a Shamus and the 2006 Ross Macdonald Award which is bestowed upon the "California writer whose work raises the standard of literary excellence."
Can the Nobel Peace Prize be far off?
I tell ya, this Crais guy is worth watching...
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