The labyrinthine genre of crime fiction has always prowled the figurative alleyways of cities, whose darkness and dangers are caricaturized through plot and imagination. That’s what page-turning thrillers are all about.
In a literary sense, those territories are “owned” by certain best-selling authors. For instance, John Sandford dominates Minneapolis with two series starring Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers. Dennis Lehane rules Boston with his Patrick Kenzie-Angela Gennaro titles, and George Pelecanos reigns in Washington, D.C. with Derek Strange-Terry Quinn.
In Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald led an exclusive brotherhood of authors who unleashed their cynical “hard-boiled” detectives on the bad guys. In Chandler’s case that would be Philip Marlowe; for Macdonald, it was Lew Archer.
In more recent decades, those mantles passed to a new generation of authors and their protagonists: Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer), Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch), James Ellroy (who penned the “L.A. Quartet” series), Walter Mosley (Easy Rawlins) and T. Jefferson Parker (Charlie Hood).
In the midst of this fraternity is Robert Crais and his 17-title Elvis Cole-Joe Pike series. They’re partners in a “private detective agency” in a loose sense, one a yin to the other’s yang. That is, when they actually work together, as circumstances often keep them apart.
As for Crais: He’s a New York Times best-selling author whose books have been published in more than 60 countries. He has won Shamus, Anthony, Macavity and Ross Macdonald awards, among others, and holds the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America.
Crais came to Los Angeles from Baton Rouge, La., in 1976 and built a resume over 10 years as a scriptwriter for hit TV shows including Cagney & Lacy, Quincy, Miami Vice, L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues. Still, he says he’s most proud of his NBC miniseries Cross of Fire, a history of the Ku Klux Klan.
Crais published his first Cole-Pike novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, in 1987. Four years later, Hollywood bought his stand-alone thriller, Hostage, turning it into a 2005 movie starring Bruce Willis.
In something of the gumshoe tradition, Elvis Cole is wise-cracking (he calls himself “the world’s greatest detective”) and skeptical, and shoulders his share of demons. On the other hand, he’s funny and shrewd, has a turbulent relationship with the LAPD, can grill a perfect steak, works out most mornings, and lives with a feral cat in a simple frame house in the Hollywood Hills.
Then there’s the menacingly quiet Joe Pike, a former Marine combat soldier and black-ops mercenary whose skill set is much darker than Cole’s. “These two have been in my head every day for 30 years,” Crais says. One thing’s for sure: Wherever their cases take them in the violent vortex of Los Angeles, trouble is their companion.
In Crais’ new novel, The Wanted, Elvis Cole is hired by a single mother worried about her young teenage son. As in, how did he get thousands of dollars in cash, an elaborate wardrobe and a Rolex watch? Twists lead to turns, culminating in a tense, satisfying ending, all guided by a cast of three-dimensional characters.
Among them are two of contemporary crime fiction’s most entertaining (and psychopathic) villains, whose antics will make readers laugh and shudder at the same time.
I chatted recently with Crais by email, the third time I’ve interviewed him over the years. He and his wife live with their two cats in the Santa Monica Mountains. Visit him at www.robertcrais.com
Q: Your novels dwell on many dynamics, including the relationships between parents and their children. We see that severalfold in The Wanted, intensified by Elvis’ own longing for his stepson.
A: Elvis Cole had an unusual childhood in many ways. He never knew his father, or even his father's name. His mother suffered from emotional issues and often disappeared for long periods of time. Even when he was a small child, there were times when he would wake up and she'd simply be gone.
This crazy instability led to a deep longing on Elvis’ part for a stable, secure, nuclear family. When I first began writing the books, I didn't realize this, but over time his desire for a family emerged. Elvis would be a totally committed dad. He wants what he never had.
Q: One of the teenage characters, Carl, is a computer whiz kid, an irritating but sad figure who Elvis kindly treats with respect.
A: Carl is a geek and an outcast. Elvis can relate. I can relate, as well. I'm a full-on book nerd.
Q: The ending of The Wanted happens quickly, with a lot of anticipation, then satisfaction. You’ve been a master of the ending throughout your career.
A: It takes an enormous amount of work, which hopefully the reader doesn't see. It's like watching a great dancer. You see the dancer move so gracefully and beautifully, they make the dance look easy, but you don't see the thousands of hours of practice.
Q: The “bad guys” this time out are Harvey and Stemms, who are unique not only for their smarts but also for their mind-bending relationship, where humor and dysfunction meet.
A: I'm fascinated by them—who they are, where they came from, how they came to be Harvey and Stemms. I could write a novel about them, these twisted, demented, homicidal, multifaceted protagonists. I love their conversations, these men who spend—and have spent—so much time together, and have discussed everything under the sun to the point of boredom, yet still they have untouched places.
Q: There’s a great extended scene involving them in a bar in Mexico, defending a young musician from cartel thugs.
A: I hate one-note, one-dimensional characters, and this scene really allowed me to reveal their various sides. They might be cold-blooded killers, but if that's all I showed you, they would be boring.
They are also multi-faceted people with diverse interests and unique emotional landscapes. Here's Stemms, and who would ever guess he has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and is himself a gifted guitarist? He may be a murderer, but he is moved by a young guitarist in a Mexican bar. This makes him memorable and, to me, a deeply interesting character.
Q: What did you learn on the TV-screenwriting side that you brought to the novels?
A: Working in television was the greatest writing school in the world. I was a baby writer when I began in television, and, believe me, working on scripts with actors like Jack Klugman and Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless and the others, and working with enormously gifted writer-producers, was an education you simply cannot buy. All of it plays a hand in my current work.
Q: What is it about L.A. that inspires detective fiction?
A: I love the great, sprawling size of it, the diversity, the hills and the beaches. Everything but the traffic. Los Angeles is a magnet for hope and dreams—and dreamers. I love that most of all.
Q: You’ve won all the big awards in your genre. What’s your take?
A: I'm thrilled and appreciative, the recognition is rewarding. And to be named a Grand Master? That's as good as it gets in the mystery community. But at the end of the day, each new book stands or falls on its own. I'm all about the work.