Created by Robert Crais
You haven’t seen a P.I. like this one, I’ll bet. He has a Mickey Mouse phone and a Pinocchio wall clock in his office on Santa Monica Boulevard, drinks his coffee out of a Spider-Man mug, frequently quotes Jiminy Cricket and claims he wants to be Peter Pan. He’s been known to drive a bright yellow 1966 Corvette, and has one of the coolest P.I. homes around, a “redwood A-frame perched on a narrow road off Woodrow Wilson Drive near the top of Laurel Canyon.”
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 Vietnam, not to mention several years as a private detective in Hollywood with an office right near Musso and Frank’s, where Chandler used to hang out. He’s earned a rep as a tough and 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, showing particular concern for 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 blabbermouth Cole and stoic-to-a-fault Pike make quite a team.
An excellent series, and one that has steadily improved as Crais found his own voice, moving beyond the Parker inspiration. 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. It 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, the first book in the series, has 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 has become 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 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 was simply one of the best P.I. novels of the decade. Or perhaps ever.
In these days of cast-of-thousands mega-selling thrillers like Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, it’s easy to forget 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 (1996), 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 wouldn’t go for it.”
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 more 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”). Meanwhile, the Joe Pike book The Watchman (2007), has him leaving his beloved red Jeep Cherokee at a gas station to avoid being spotted on a tail job. The Cherokee is promptly stolen by bank robber Max Holman in the 2006 standalone The Two Minute Rule. 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. And the LAPD K9 cop Scott James and his faithful German Shepherd companion, Maggie, whom Crais introduced in Suspect (2013), another standalone, joined forces with Elvis and Joe in The Promise (2015).
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.” He’s also a MWA Grand Master, and had a pizza named after Elvis Cole at a pizza joint on Venice Beach.
Can the Nobel Peace Prize be far off?
I tell ya, this Crais guy is worth watching…
- Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch makes an un-billed but hardly-unrecognizable cameo in The Last Detective, and Connelly returns the favor in Lost Light, when Harry spots his neighbor, a certain LA private eye in a classic yellow ‘Vette, and gives him the “smooth sailing, brother” salute.
- “… next to riots and earthquakes, fires are our largest spectator sport.”
— L.A. Requiem
- “Elvis Cole is Los Angeles.”
— Los Angeles Magazine
- “Of all the Parker-influenced authors (Harlen Coben, Dennis Lehane, Jerry Healy, Earl Emerson, et al), Crais remained perhaps the most reverent acolyte — until L.A. Requiem, when he made a break of sorts by taking things a little more seriously.”
–Dick Lochte, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time (2012)
- The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Stalking the Angel (1989) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Lullaby Town (1992) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Free Fall (1993) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Voodoo River (1995) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Sunset Express (1996) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Indigo Slam (1997) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- L.A. Requiem (1999) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Last Detective (2002) | Buy this book
- The Forgotten Man (2005) | Buy this book
- The Watchman (2007) | Buy this book | Kindle it! *
- Chasing Darkness (2008) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The First Rule (2010) | Buy this book | Kindle it! *
- The Sentry (2011) | Buy this book | Kindle it! *
- Taken (2012) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Promise (2015) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- The Wanted (2017) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- A Dangerous Man (2019) | Buy this book | Kindle it! *
* Although Elvis appears in it, Joe Pike is the central character.
- The Official Robert Crais Website
All the news from bibliographies to book-signing dates.
- The Explosive Talents of Robert Crais
Interview conducted by the editor of this site for the May 2000 issue of January Magazine, around the time of the release of his first non-Elvis novel, Demolition Angel.
- Welcome to L.A.
2003 Left Coast Crime opening remarks by Robert Crais. His love affair with the City of Angels continues…